REVIEW: John Bail’s “In the Heat of the Night” at SLCA

In the Heat of the Night Redux

by Barbara Waldinger

It has been said that a director’s hand should be invisible; that his/her job is to bring the text to life from the page to the stage without imposing an alien concept onto the material.  However, there are times when a directorial concept is so powerful that it transforms the way we see a play.   Patrick White’s smashing yet minimalist directorial debut of John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night at Sand Lake Center for the Arts is one of those times.

In the Heat of the Night has gone through several incarnations and spawned diverse progeny.  Initially a novel by John Ball, in 1967 it was converted into a popular film written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Norman Jewison.  Starring Sidney Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger as police chief Bill Gillespie, the movie garnered five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor (Steiger).  Next was the stage play, adapted from the novel by Matt Pelfrey, which was originally produced by the Free Southern Theater, a community theatre operating from 1963 until 1980 in Mississippi, as part of the Black Theatre Movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement.  Denise Nicholas, one of four founders of the FST, went on to become a writer of the successful television series based on the same characters which ran from 1988 to 1995.  Two film sequels appeared in the early 1970s, and Ball went on to write many other novels featuring Virgil Tibbs.  There are also a number of songs entitled In the Heat of the Night, among which is a version by Ray Charles, whose music was played between scenes of White’s production.

In the Heat of the Night is a detective story that focuses on the relationship between Gillespie (Chris Foster), a white sheriff, and Virgil Tibbs (Aileem Penn), a visiting black detective, in 1962 Alabama, as they try to solve a murder.  Racism rears its ugly head from beginning to end of this play, which takes place in the crucible of the Civil Rights era.

As the lights fade marking the beginning of the production, White’s imagination and skill jump into high gear.  Thirteen actors in costume enter the playing area, moving in a circular pattern, many hauling chairs, which will serve as set pieces, taking turns making the quotidian announcements customarily conveyed by an artistic director or house manager.  The fourteenth, the lone black character, enters up the center aisle and steps to the stage with a suitcase, in what appears to be a confrontation with the others but results merely in an exhortation for us to enjoy the show.  Director White, with the help of his Movement Coach (Cori Irwin) and Fight Coach (Ron Glasser), has choreographed this fast-paced production down to the last detail.  In Brechtian fashion, actors who are not in a scene sit stage left and right on chairs or wooden cubes, listening and reacting to what is going on (even when their characters could not have been aware of what is said).   At the end of each scene, the actors are on the move with their chairs, accompanied by appropriate music of the time (thanks to Sound/Light Designer Barry Striefurt), or drumming by other actors on the sidelines.

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Aside from a flat with a cut-out window serving multiple functions, there is no set (though Bob and Sharon Dawes are listed as Set Designers).   With a minimum of props (provided by Anna Church and Karleen Hayden), signs are used to indicate a jail, a railroad station, a diner, and a bank, as the actors create every environment.  During phone conversations (without phones) actors face the audience, addressing the fourth wall.  Throughout the production, chairs become beds and cars, sheets hide dead bodies who need to move offstage unseen, and the offstage actors supply necessary props.  This is the magic of theatre, stripped down to its essentials, as it was meant to be—without hugely expensive, multi-layered moving machines cluttering the stage.

The actors range in experience from relative newcomers to veterans.   Some of the more noteworthy performances are given by Chris Foster, Will Murphy (a policeman), Dennis Skiba (in a double role), Joseph Bruton (the Mayor), Carter Holmes (a looney, over-the-top waiter), and Abbi Roy (as the town slut).   Barbara Neu’s realistic costumes are enormously helpful in establishing the characterizations.  Her handiwork ranges from Roy’s revealing get-up as well as the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.

After several false leads, the identity of the murderer is eventually discovered, but the play’s ending is a bit muddled.  It is unclear what playwright Matt Pelfrey is up to, as he has apparently played fast and loose with the plot of the novel (not to mention the film), and leaves us confused about motive and accessories to the crime.  But Patrick White’s coup-de-theatre at the end of the play serves to confirm his role as the brilliant mastermind of this production.

In the Heat of the Night runs from October 6-15 at Sand Lake Center for the Arts.  For tickets call 518-674-2007 or online at slca-ctp.org.

Circle Theatre Players at Sand Lake Center for the Arts presents John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night adapted by Matt Pelfrey.  Director:  Patrick White.  Cast:  Abbi Roy (Noreen Purdy); Chris Foster (Bill Gillespie); Mike Eisenstein (Pete); Will Murphy (Sam); Aileem Penn (Virgil Tibbs); Dennis Skiba (Charles Tatum, Tutum Purdy); Edward Miller (Coroner); Lee Lattimer (Harvey Obrest); Richard Cross (Mr. Endicott); JJ Paul (Melanie Tatum); Joseph Bruton (Mayor Frank Shubert); Dave Sheldon (Eric Kaufman); Carter Holmes (Ralph); Todd Langley (Jennings).  Dramaturg:  Brenda Kilianski; Set Design: Bob and Sharon Dawes; Costume Design:  Barbara Neu; Props and Set Dressing:  Anna Church and Karleen Hayden; Fight Coach:  Ron Glasser; Movement Coach:  Cori Irwin; Lighting and Sound Design:  Barry Striefurt; Stage Manager: MaryMargaret Corcoran.  Running Time:  90 minutes, no intermission, at Sand Lake Center for the  Arts, 2880 NY-43, Averill Park, NY 12018, from October 6, closing October 15.

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