John Ball's In The Heat of The Night, by Matt Pelfrey. Directed by Patrick White. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Richard Cross, Will Murphy, Chris Foster, Aileen Penn; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
"Sometimes a solution is as messy as the crime itself."
Will Murphy, Aileem Penn, Jj Paul; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
In Argo, Alabama in 1962, a murder is committed. At the train station sits a black man, unknown in the district. A young cop immediately arrests the man for the murder, an obvious choice because he is black and this is Alabama in 1962. Case closed. That is until it is revealed that the man, Virgil Tibbs, is actually a Pasadena Police Detective, a fact that goes down as easily as an entire watermelon might without slicing it up or removing the pits. This is 1962, the American south in the era of extreme prejudice, the prominent Ku Klux Klan, the uneasy race relations, the hard-ball treatment of women and white trash.
It takes a brave theater company to produce a play where foul language, harsh attitudes and bad manners are in the forefront of the show. The Circle Theatre Players at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, in Sand Lake, NY have put this play on its feet and amazingly it feels like the people and the facts have been pulled out of the current events calendar on display in the Trump White House. It is important to note that though we think we've come far over the years, we have barely budged in our attitudes toward our fellow men. This is a good mystery with a relevance to our times disguised as a period piece. Think back to the 1967 movie with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. It's that story staged by Patrick White in a tense and dynamic staging in which the players on stage are as much a part of the audience as are you and me. They are visually more passive than we are, though, and that is comment enough on the tenor of the times.
The play and the film are different, but the result of each is pretty much the same: an accurate picture of the attitudes in the American South is presented without apology and the audience is enlightened about prejudice and its fallout. The cast in this community theater production is a remarkable one with accents and attitudes appropriate to the piece. Aileem Penn as Virgil Tibbs is never the edgy type played by Poitier in the film. He is calm, quiet, contained and always clearly alert. Penn brings a stillness to the work that is very engaging. Virgil is a child of the south and so he understands the attitude that brings him into the thick of the fray. Penn's Virgil reacts in the best way possible, even suffering a beating at the hands of the KKK with equanimity.
Just the opposite is Chief Bill Gillespie, played by Chris Foster. This man lets his distaste for blacks show in his face and his body all the time. Foster takes the reins here and pulls out the stops using disgust as his basis for Gillespie and showing prejudice in its worst form. Even when his anger at having to work alongside the black detective is at his worst, there is always a suspicion that he might change in his actions, but he is true to the man he portrays and he remains unwaveringly distasteful. This is an excellent portrayal of Gillespie by a fine actor.
JJ Paul plays the daughter of the murder victim with assurance and strength. Lee Latimer plays the first suspect with the gracelessness of the lower classes and delivers nicely in his final scene with Tibbs. Edward Miller is perfect as the coroner, a man who produces no tangible results and is nasty to boot. Mike Eisenstein's Pete is thoroughly dislikeable every time he speaks or moves. The Mayor, as played by Joseph Bruton, is emotionally two-faced and appropriately constantly perplexed.
As the epitome of southern white trash, the Purdys, Dennis Skirba and Abby Roy play a father and daughter ready, willing and able to take an innocent man to the cleaners over things he has not done. As distasteful as they come, Tutum and Noreen Purdy are given the full-out treatment by these two actors and they are just about as good at it as could be expected. Both are wonderful portrayals of this lower-class type.
Dennis Skiba, Abbi Roy; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
Chris Foster, Aileem Penn, Will Murphy; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
Carter Holmes turns Ralph, the counter-man in the local diner, into a nearly comic characterization of a man. He is almost too over-the-top, but he makes the worst, most contemptible attitudes into comic relief in this melodrama. His creation is most welcome.
Will Murphy makes Sam Woods into a most memorable character, the only person we meet in Argo who could conceivably turn into an upright, nearly noble human being. This actor is someone to watch and admire for he moves his man into the next stage of human development and it is most admirable and wondrous to see.
This is a play you won't see often. Its story, time and setting, and its characters are too realistic and vicious for most companies to risk putting on their stage for a local audience. For the folks in Sand Lake, New York, however, there is an opportunity to sit, watch, listen and learn about the country from which we emerged into the 21st century only to find ourselves reliving those conditions in our own time. Patrick White's production is startling and stunning. It is a moving experience.
John Ball's In The Heat of The Night plays at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 Route 43 in Averill Park, NY through October 15. For information and tickets go to slca-ctp.org or call 518-674-2007.