Monday, February 5, 2018

"In the Heat of the Night" - Great Detective Drama Dripping with Virulent Southern Racism

Daniel Pivovar, Jonathan Visser and Kevin Moore Star in "In the Heat of the Night" Credit: Christopher Chapman

Somehow in my memory bank is the experience of seeing the 1967 film version of  "In the Heat of the Night," based on the book by John Ball with the same title. I can still see in my mind’s eye a rather roly-poly Rod Steiger playing the role of the Southern sheriff with a debonair Sidney Poitier cast as the African-American police homicide detective trapped momentarily by circumstance in the Jim Crow South

Fortunately, I remembered none of the plot from the film I’d seen decades ago when I went to catch a production adapted for the stage by Pittsburgh playwright Matt Pelfrey on opening weekend at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

I say fortunately because Ball’s plot keeps you guessing as to who dunnit from beginning to end. Finely crafted, the novel earned its author the Edgar Award  for Best First Novel  by the Mystery Writers of America, and Ball seems to have done the novel justice.

Even more delicious is the way Ball depicts Virgil Tibbs, the detective, as having the same sort of skills Arthur Conan Doyle gave his Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Ball was a member of The Baker Street Irregulars, a society of enthusiastic Sherlock Holmes fans.

In his theatrical adaptation of the novel, Pelfrey adroitly captures the intrigue of the murder investigation, giving out facts, pieces of evidence and suspicions in small doses at a time, keeping the guessing game percolating from beginning to end. Lovers of murder mysteries should enjoy this play immensely.
But wait. There’s more. The fact that Tibbs is pulled into the investigation  reluctantly at first, means that he has to go to work in a small Mississippi town full of Negro baiting rednecks and Klansmen who’ll stop at nothing to keep the Ole Southern ways on their traditional track, including deeds that inspired Billie Holiday’s protest song, "Strange Fruit." The tension created by the townsfolk’s inveterate racism coupled with the intriguing mystery narrative doubles the play’s theatrical clout and emotional impact.

The crime that sets the play in motion centers around the murder of a wealthy real estate tycoon who body is left along side the road. After discovering the body, officer Sam Wood (Jonathan Visser) immediately calls in his chief, a cantankerous bigot named Gillespie ( Daniel Pivovar) who orders his men to search for anyone suspiciously leaving town. When Wood probes around he discovers a well-dressed African-American with $200 in his wallet sitting in the railway station waiting for a train. He immediately thinks "I have my man."

When taken to the police station, Gillespie is also convinced the crime is solved until he learns, then verifies, that Tibbs is who he says he is - a respected homicide detective with the Pasadena Police Department.

 Kevin Moore and Arthur Peden Credit: Christopher Chapman
As Tibbs, Kevin H. Moore has the cool, smarts and demeanor to carry off the role, showing his superior investigative skills when matched against those of the small town cops. But that doesn’t stop other members of the community from calling him the N word, refusing to serve him in the local cafĂ© and demeaning him every chance they get.

With a cast of nine, some of whom play multiple roles, the play demands close attention. There’s a lot of comings and goings through several exits and entrances, and many of the scenes are short and to-the-point. The stage is centered between two banks of seats on risers at opposite ends of the theater so the action has a definite in-your-face intimacy. Devoid of scenic backdrops and with little in the way of props, the play engages the imagination much like it does in a radio drama.

Director Monteze Freeland clearly defines the end of each scene with things like the simple moving of a desk on wheels to another part of the stage and the use of sound designer, Wayne Gaines’ eclectic song selections that range from Johnny Cash’s "I Hear That  Train a Comin’" to avant garde jazz .
Freeland’s blocking also keeps light designer Piper Clement busy focusing the spotlight angled just right to catch all the several entrance and exit points used by the cast.

As chief Gillespie, Pivovar walks a tight line, keeping his cool (but not always) when having to work closely as a peer or even his cerebral better with someone society taught him to look down on. Even when they part ways in the final scene, he maintains an arrogant air of superiority despite showing some degree of respect for his African-American colleague.

As officer Wood, Visser is called on to display a wide range of characterization, transitioning from respected cop to suspected murderer. Impressive in lesser roles are Brett Sullivan Santry as the hot-headed, red neck Cracker, Purdy, and Jenny Malarky as his seductive but clueless daughter, Noreen. Malarky is wildly successful in her comic treatment of the hillbilly waif, but somewhat less imposing in her portrayal of Melanie Tatum, a woman from a more respectable social circle.

Amazing for his ability to create two disparate personalities is Arthur Peden, whose foul-mouthed mayor speaks with stentorian force and contrasts greatly with the his rendition of the more restrained Endicott, a not-so-closeted racist plantation owner.

Adam Seligson is called on to handle seven roles and treats each so convincingly, I had a hard time keeping up with his septet of identities. Tal Kroser is at his visceral best as officer Pete, but sometimes his rapid dialogue was just a bit too fast for complete comprehension.

It’s strange how succinctly the play brings back the dark sentiments and reminiscence of the South in the early 1960s. Even stranger is how you can still hear their echo today - and not just in places south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

"In the Heat of the Night" is at The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 937 Liberty Avenue, third floor, in Downtown Pittsburgh through March 11. For tickets, go to website www.pghplaywrights.org.

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