In Matt Pelfrey’s adaptation of the famous John Ball novel, In the Heat of the Night, starring Manny Buckley and Joseph Wiens as the antagonists, and directed by Louis Contey, appearances and depths collide, where much rests on hearsay, innuendo, and, of course, prejudice. Shattered Globe’s new production on stage at Theater Wit is both timely and timeless.
We’ve seen this story before in Norman Jewison’s 1967 film adaptation featuring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger (“they call me Mr. Tibbs.“). However, this stage adaption has plenty going for it and can confidently shoulder for space and attention. Virgil Tibbs (Buckley), a black detective on vacation in the sizzling Civil Rights-era South is scooped up by the resident sheriff and bigot, Bill Gillespie (Wiens), and thrust into a complicated plot involving money and murder of a wealthy local. The two reluctantly work together, navigating the racial tensions and a growing backlash by townsfolk and the resident KKK, all the while growing fonder of each other bit by bit.
There’s a book, a film and now a play. In 1988, there was also a TV show. This repetition conjures a great deal of power despite liberties taken in location and back story in each iteration. Sometimes Tibbs is from Philadelphia. Others, it’s Pasadena. Sometimes the action is centered in South Carolina. Here it’s Alabama. Perhaps these multiple layers are all too appropriate. Issues of police violence and racial profiling: both are red hot brands sizzling the flanks of our culture then and now.
Director Contey, with a special nod to lighting designer Michael Stanfill, captures this in an intimate spectacle that’s both unsettling and engaging. The tightness of the space brings the characters, sweaty, irritable, intense almost directly into your lap. One feels less like an audience member but part of the scene, one of the unseen townsfolk revealed through exposition who constantly murmur about the presence of Tibbs in their tightly segregated town.
The closeness to the actors and their ample physical altercations also allows the cast to shine. Each performer delivers confidently, especially Buckley as Tibbs, whose firm, rigid posturing acts as a stern rebuke to the citizens of Argo, Alabama. At first I felt his stiffness was over-the-top, robotic, but then it dawned on me that such rigidity reflected the inflexible racial hierarchy of the mid-20th century South and the stoic physical resistance of protesters ranging from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Committee, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and today’s Black Lives Matter.
Complementing the performers, Stanfill’s lighting is especially compelling, moving from set piece to set piece like a giant magnifying glass, perhaps a nod to the cinematography of the film, and a reminder of the titular heat that each character is under: meteorological, social, racial. Wiens’ turn as the sweaty Sheriff Gillespie is especially vulnerable, perhaps the one character under the most pressure. Badgered by the mayor, mocked by townsfolk, distrusted by his deputies, wrestling with his distaste for the far more competent Tibbs, Gillespie is like an ant scurrying from the intense heat.
From start to finish, the show captures the attention, bringing audiences back to a time that is strangely reminiscent of our own. Though the overt and cartoonish bigotry of the past might be far harder to come by today, it lingers under the surface, coded in ways sinister and benign. In the Heat of the Night still has plenty to tell contemporary audiences.
Shattered Globe’s In the Heat of the Night continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 5, with performances Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $33 with discounts available. Buy them online or by calling 773-975-8150.