If you want an electric evening of theater, see In the Heat of the Night. It’s an exciting detective murder mystery story, enlarged by its vivid, shocking portrayal of what it meant to be a Black man in the deep South in the 1960’s. The play could not have a more dramatic presentation than the production at 59E59 Theaters where the audience, two rows deep, sits on four sides of the square stage. You can’t get away from the action and — grim as it can be — you don’t want to.
A black homicide detective from California, Virgil Tibbs, finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation in Argo, Alabama, working with the all White local police force, who share the prejudices against Blacks of their community. Reluctantly, the fundamentally honest Chief of Police Gillespie realizes, as things move along, that he just may need the California homicide expert, with his training in interrogation and inference, to solve the murder. Tibbs’ progress on the investigation moves hand in hand with the tensions building around him from racial hatred, outsider hatred, and from the fears of whoever’s going to turn out to be the murderer — there are several candidates.
Tibbs, a we-can-have-absolute-confidence and nothing-can-happen-to-him hero, is breathtakingly vulnerable in this small Southern town — what a dramatic playoff! And the play brings it to the brink, all within a few feet of the audience’s eyes and hearts. Will the skill, toughness and smarts that worked for Tibbs before, and landed him in this situation, work here? Will he make it to that train out of here alive? Will there be some kind of racial reconciliation among the police professionals thrown together by these events? The final moment of the play is as brilliant and unsentimental an answer to that last as we’ll ever see.
Sean Phillips is charismatic as the detective working on the edge, and Gregory Konow brings Chief Gillespie to full and touching life, narrow-minded, habit ridden, and yet fundamentally serious. Sidney Poitier as Tibbs and Rod Steiger as Chief Gillespie must have been compelling in the Academy Award winning film (I plan to rent it) but I doubt they could have been more so than Phillips and Konow. Nick Paglino is effective as the thoughtful, humane police officer — but no pushover — Sam Wood. These are very richly drawn characters. The tension and emotions, and movement of the plot, are powerfully expressed by the fine cast, at times through an unforgettable slow motion choreography.
A hypothetical question: if the detective wasn’t Black, how would this play hold up as a detective mystery? The plotting of In the Heat of the Night isn’t quite up to, say, Law and Order — the powerful racial tensions, I think, help to blur an overlong string of red herrings, but never mind, it’s terrific as it stands.
In the Heat of the Night began as John Ball’s 1965 novel and was subsequently made into the film and a television series. Thank you, Matt Pelfrey, Joe Tantalo and others of this Godlight production, for bringing this thrilling, significant drama to live theater.
In the Heat of the Night plays at 59E59 Theaters, Theater C, NYC, through April 25th. http://59e59.org/ for more information.