I’ll admit it – I’m probably the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the movie (or even the TV show) In the Heat of the Night. I haven’t seen a lot of older movies. It’s an embarrassing gap in my cultural knowledge. However, one of my favorite things in theater is being able to go into a show not knowing anything about it – it’s so much more enjoyable to experience a show for the first time – and I was pleased for the chance to see it onstage.
Charles Tatum (Dennis Skiba), a local businessman in Argo, Alabama, has been murdered, and police chief Bill Gillespie (Chris Foster) and Officer Sam Wood (Will Murphy) are investigating the case when a suspect comes to light – Virgil Tibbs (Aileem Penn), a stranger in town. It’s the early ‘60s in the deep South, and he’s African-American, so of course they don’t give him the benefit of the doubt – and then they find out he’s a police detective in California, just passing through. Tatum’s business partner insists Tibbs stay and help with the case, and Gillespie, Wood and Tibbs are forced to work together on the case, while dealing with the prejudice that everyone (including Gillespie) carries against Tibbs.
Foster, a gem in area theater, shines (no pun intended) as Gillespie; his attitude toward Tibbs and his character arc are a journey the audience has the honor of taking with him. Penn, who I’d not seen before onstage, has both the quiet grace and the inner rage needed for Tibbs; he does fine, subtle work here with this iconic character, and I hope to see him in another production soon. Murphy is the everyman character we all hope, in this situation, we would be, and gives a strong performance. Carter Holmes, as Ralph, a local diner proprietor, was just off-putting; I’m not sure what he was aiming for with his character (it seemed to be an over-the-top homosexual caricature, but then that didn’t play out, and I was just stumped) but his scenes were so jarring they pulled me right out of the action.
Director Patrick White has done solid work with this production, and I applaud his choice of show. His set changes (as always – he has a keen eye for these) are well-choreographed works of art; the actors, for the most part, are three-dimensional and do fine work bringing out the human beings behind the racists (it’s often too easy with fictional characters – and maybe even real people, at times – to write a racist off without realizing there is, after all, a person beneath that hate. Not so here, and it adds an extra layer of verisimilitude to the production.) I wasn’t sold on a pivotal music choice (not sure if this is a directorial or sound design issue) and the aforementioned acting choice perplexed me, but as a whole, the show was engaging, enjoyable and thought-provoking – and (sadly) still very timely for the era in which we live.
“In the Heat of the Night”, Circle Theatre Players, Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 NY-43, Averill Park, October 6-15, $18-$10, Run time: 90 minutes, 518-674-2007, slca-ctp.org