Southern racial drama still packs ‘Heat’

10/26/2012 11:13 PM

10/26/2012 11:15 PM

You may be asking why you should see any staged version of “In the Heat of the Night,” however well done it might be. Doesn’t the Oscar-winning 1967 film still have toughness, humor and social commentary that stings? Doesn’t John Ball’s timely mystery novel from two years earlier still hold up?

Yes, and yes. But this is the reason: Matt Pelfrey’s dramatic adaptation, which had its Southern premiere Friday night at Theatre Charlotte, takes us down roads we haven’t quite walked before.

That’s literally true because of the coarse language, sudden flare-ups of violence and a sultry nude scene (or what looks like one in the evocative lighting by Chris Timmons, who also did the simple set). But it’s metaphorically true as well.

Director Dave Blamy and his cast redefine the near-iconic characters from the film. In the movie, detective Virgil Tibbs had to forgive abuse he faced in a Mississippi town, where he went from being a murder suspect to the likeliest person to solve the crime. Swaggering Chief Gillespie had to forget a lifetime of imbedded racism. If friendship wasn’t possible for them, understanding was.

In the play, Tibbs (Ron McLelland) and Gillespie (Lamar Wilson) barely change. The former, now a Californian instead of a Pennsylvanian, almost matter-of-factly solves the crime, so he can leave town unmolested. The latter, now presiding in 1962 Alabama instead of Mississippi, has no one’s friendship or respect and never warms to Tibbs. McLelland stays calmer than Sidney Poitier; Wilson stews more forcefully than Rod Steiger.

Yet there’s a third character that stands between them physically and figuratively: Detective Sam Wood, written as a boob in the movie but turned here into a compassionate, doubting man who represents the New South. He’s willing to bridge the gap with Tibbs, able to see Gillespie’s point of view and ready to shake off the Klan-filled past for a future he doesn’t yet see. Robert Crozier doesn’t try to make Sam heroic, but he’s the hope of the play.

Pelfrey’s drama unfolds like a movie: It runs 105 minutes without intermission and consists of vignettes that aren’t immediately linked. Yet those of us who can quote dialogue from the 1967 screenplay will be surprised how little we hear.

The black interloper quietly asserts “They call me Mister Tibbs” without making it seem like a slogan. But such famous scenes as the slapping of the racist Endicott or Tibbs’ meeting with the sad-eyed abortionist are gone, and the climax of the play is utterly different.

Blamy has been fortunate not only in his leads but in actors who play multiple parts – John Hartness, Phil Taylor, Ted Weiner – and differentiate them quickly and credibly. Dan Brunson plays an overtly racist policeman with the smile of a man who’ll never need to think twice about his place in society.

The play can be subtle, but it’s unambiguous. Yet Timmons’ set had one element I could never define, a vaguely cross-shaped piece at the back that wasn’t used. Was it a coat rack in Gillespie’s office, a religious symbol – maybe one the Klan was prepared to burn – or a gibbet on which it was still possible that Tibbs might have been lynched 50 years ago? Or could it have been all three?

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