While the audience takes their seats for John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, adapted by Matt Pelfrey, you’ll notice a caged stage enveloped by gauzy curtains while a scantily dressed and overheated girl seductively dances from deep within. Approaching curtain time, the fog seeps in. One would think this sultry atmosphere was the start of a Tennessee Williams play, but this is clearly not the case. There is a history to this play. First it was a novel, then a movie, and then it became a TV series, but this is the first time it has ever hit the stage. Why? Because this racially charged drama is both compelling and powerful and, though set in the 1960’s, still has relevance. The most astounding thing about this production is the directing. The director, Joe Tantalo, faces a challenge, probably one of his own choosing, of staging a linear, multi-scened, seemingly naturalistic story in a theater in-the-round or square, as is the case with this theater. He does so without a set, furniture or props (minus five guns and a cigar). The committed actors mimed specific invisible set items and I honestly believed I could see jail doors being keyed open. Tantalo’s staging was inventive and created intensity during scene transitions. Additional moments filled with physical symbolic gestures coupled with underscored sound or music broke up the real time of the play. The juxtaposition of these intense moments in contrast to the naturalistic playing of scenes proves quite successful.
At the top of the play, Charles Tatum (Adam Kee) is found murdered, and Bill Gillespie, Chief of Police, played by Gregory Konow, is brought in. Virgil Tibbs (Sean Phillips), an African American, is discovered at a nearby train station, racially profiled and immediately arrested. These Southern police officers quickly discover that Tibbs, a police detective from Los Angeles, will now aid in solving the case. This sequence sets up a conflict between Southern bigoted cops and an unwanted black detective that will drive the play.
The racial hatred displayed as part of the South during this time, which I’m sure is authentically accurate with dramaturg Christina Hurtado and adapter Matt Pelfrey under the helm, is an upsetting reminder. It is also unique that each character has varying degrees of racist hatred and tolerance. The play develops as possible suspects rotate in and out of the crime investigation. If you’re into crime drama, which I am, one particular element is similar in structure to TV’s C.S.I. As each new suspect appears, a symbolic crime-like re-enactment is presented on how this person could have done it. The first time this stylized bit happened, I didn’t get it. I thought I was being told how this suspect killed him, but then after it happened again with the next suspect I realized it was to add to the mystery.
Konow, as the police chief, is extremely believable as a bigoted cop and quite a strong actor. Sam Whitten as Pete, one of the more racist cops, celebrated his prejudice so outrageously that I found myself gritting my teeth whenever he was onstage. Julian Nelson as the bereaved daughter, Melanie Tatum, is quite vulnerable and has a well-played scene with Nick Paglina, the actor playing nice cop Sam Wood.
Because of the “in-the-square” stage, the actors are placed in diagonals or corners to aid visibility. After a while, however, the actors start to feel locked in place. Just as this gets tiresome, Bryce Hodgson, a fresh talent, sweeps up the space with energy and much detailed physicality in both his parts as Eric Kaufman and Ralph.
The responsibility of the play depends in large part on the connection between Konow and Phillips. Phillips undeniably grasps the authoritative poise of a northern detective, but his performance tends to be one-note, which I feel takes away some effectiveness. I would have liked to have seen more human or vulnerable qualities, especially during scenes when he was trying to gain information from suspects.
By the time we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Noreen Purdy, Scarlett Thiele, it seems rather late in the play to develop a new plot. I believe that Tantalo might have agreed because this girl was the sultry girl onstage prior to the play’s beginning.
The set by Maruti Evans is effective, minimalistic and comprised of one broad symbol: a noose hanging from the ceiling, center stage. This noose heightens the themes of the play, especially when our L.A. detective stands under it. Evans also serves as the lighting designer and has an interesting light panel on the stage as well authentic looking flashing police lights. Costumes seem “of the period,” and Phillips looks exceptional in his suit. I was confused by Adam Kee’s overly snug suit. Kee plays the dead victim of Charles Tatum as well as two other characters, and at times I wasn’t sure which character he represented because of lack of variety on wardrobe accesories.
In terms of suspense, until the end I never had an idea of who the murderer could be. Having seen the movie such a long time ago, I had forgotten. But you can bet I’ve been inspired and have added In the Heat of the Night, the movie to my Netflix lineup. I can see why Godlight Theater Company would want to adapt this story to the stage, and overall they are quite successful at it.