San Diego, CA—-Being transported to Argo, Alabama, 1962 should have been a clue as to what was to follow in Matt Pelfrye’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel to noir film, “In The Heat of the Night” now in its west coast premiere production at Ion Theatre through July, 13th. Some might remember the movie version starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.
In 1959 my late husband and I, making our cross-country trek to San Diego and wanting to drive Route 66, we somehow or other managed to find ourselves in the Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee area. It was August and it was HOT! And yes we did see signs reading “Whites Only” and felt the tensions in the streets.
My next recollection was that we hightailed to our next destination, which was Oklahoma as fast as our little 1959 Valiant would go. What were we thinking two naïve pups; white northern liberals in the Deep South? Frankly, we were scared to death.
For Virgil Tibbs (Vimel Sephus), a Black homicide detective from California, it wasn’t quite that easy. On his way home from visiting his mother in a nearby city and passing through Argo, he unwittingly finds himself right in the middle of a homicide investigation. The all White local police force, some no doubt members of the KKK, is no better in their mistrust and hatred towards Blacks and outsiders as was/is the rest of the South.
After being thrown in jail as a murder suspect by one of the less seasoned deputies, Sam Wood (Jake Rosko turns in another fine performance), Police Chief Gillespie (Tom Stephenson) learns from inquiries that Tibbs is a hotshot investigator with tons of experience in his years as a detective, experience that Gillespie could never have in a lifetime. He desperately needs Tibbs in solving the murder at hand much to Tibbs’ chagrin.
Over the objections of just about the entire little town of Argo, Alabama from the Mayor (Tim West) to the lowest of the low trash, Purdy (Eddie Yaroch), to the simple minded waiter, Ralph, (Fred Harlow) to one of their own creepy detectives Pete (Brian Mackey), Gillespie begrudgingly puts Tibbs on the case anyway.
Tibbs is feared and despised as much for being smarter than all of those small-minded above mentioned as he is for being Black. It’s bad enough that he can’t use the White’s only restroom at the local watering hole, but the one designated for Black’s doesn’t even have the basic necessities. That’s OK for the smart aleck, narrow-minded and bigoted deputy Pete (Brian Mackey is convincingly hateful) who would as soon lynch Tibbs and hang him from a tree as shoot him in the back.
Once again, ION’s small space is the perfect venue for this in your face murder/suspense/who-done-it play directed with a sure hand by Francis Gercke and a credible ensemble, in a series of short vignettes a la cinematic style.
The temperature outside the theatre the night I saw the production was as stifling as was the heat of the nights that the actors conveyed so convincingly on stage. With the exception of Sephus’ Tibbs who was as cool as a cucumber throughout, Gillespie was constantly wiping his brow and looked uncomfortably hot and disheveled.
The solid cast/ensemble plays the audience like a violin as the suspicion transfers from one suspect to another with Eric Poppick’s Tatum, the victim, getting the you know what knocked out of him by a series of would be murderers in an effort for the audience to connect the dots, red herrings and all, even as the real McCoy struts around openly daring us to check him out as the true killer.
But the murder is simply a vehicle for Ball’s foray into the blatant racism that pervaded throughout the South in the 50’s and still rears its ugly head even today with voter suppression laws urged on by a bigoted group of politicians and disgruntled red neck’s who can’t grasp the fact that we have our first African American president and cry hysterically that they ‘want their country back again’.
Tom Stephenson, whom I last saw as Bottom in Intrepid’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and was a hoot, is exactly what one might imagine an inept Sheriff Gillespie would look/ act and sound like; a frustrated, underestimated and most likely paid and bought for law enforcement officer. To his (Gillespie’s) credit he knew his limitations and acted, reluctantly, by doing the right thing and letting Tibbs help him out.
Vimel Sephus, making his ION debut is impressive as the calm, collected and very confident Tibbs. His credibility reverberates throughout causing, as is designed; the others look like bumbling idiots. Both Stephenson and Sephus are more than instrumental in making this production click.
The relationship between the two men develops slowly throughout the play oft times looking as though Gillespie doesn’t even think of Tibbs as Black and a problem, especially when the two share a drink from the same whisky bottle (which would never happen) while going over the details of some findings.
Tibbs by nature is more suspect of Gillespie than the other way around. He knows he has the upper hand, but even still must tread lightly especially after he is lynched and almost hanged by some odd KKK looking goons.
However, when the case is resolved and Tibbs is back on his way to California, Gillespie refuses to shake his hand. That was puzzling.
Jessica John, the widow and heiress and Rachael VanWormer, the hot and seductive local teen and jailbait acting juvenile, complete the cast list, with VanWormer, Harlow, Poppick and Yaroch playing multiple roles. Each actor contributes to making this small slice of noir genre an interesting but painful look back on how much more work we have yet to do to cure our ills as a society.
The multipurpose yet simple set design by Brian Redfern, (White’s Only drinking fountain) noir lighting by Karin Filijan, Melanie Chen’s (“You’re Cheatin’ Heart) sound design, Lance Arthur Smith’s flight choreography and Mary Summerday’s costumes all contribute to yet another eventful evening of theatre.
Hop on over, Y’hear.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through July 13th
Organization: Ion Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$33.00