For most of the evening it's hard to care which of the trashy, bigoted citizens of Argo, Ala., killed real estate developer Charles Tatum. Nearly every Jim Crow sunuvabitch in town, innocent or guilty, hates L.A. homicide detective Virgil Tibbs with a passion. And the townspeople are meaner and more corrosive in this stage adaptation of In the Heat of the Night — now at Theatre Charlotte through Nov. 11 — than in the Oscar-winning film version of 1967. Tibbs is black, he wears a suit, he acts like a cop, and he's smart enough to solve a mystery that has Police Chief Gillespie totally flummoxed. The audacity!
Ron McLelland (seated) as Virgil Tibbs, Robert Crozier (behind Tibbs) as Deputy Sam Wood and Lamar Wilson as Chief Gillespie (Photo: Chris Timmons)
Matt Pelfrey's adaptation of John Ball's novel diverges enough from Stirling Silliphant's screenplay to make it a very fresh experience, no matter how recently you've seen the film. Both adaptations shuffle Ball's original storyline a bit, but of course it really can't work unless somebody warms up to Tibbs. We can understand Tatum's daughter, Melanie, readily cooperating with Tibbs' interrogation. She wants the killer brought to justice. But there's also Sam Wood, the local hayseed cop who finds Tatum's body and arrests Tibbs for the crime — because he's black and waiting to catch the next train. Wood is won over in time to save our hero from the KKK.
I'd like to say that Wood warms to Virgil slowly, but there is nothing slow about this show, directed at such a blistering pace by Dave Blamy that some blue chip Charlotte actors occasionally spluttered a little bit with their lines on opening night. Presented without an intermission, the premiere clocked in at a shade over 94 minutes, 13 less than the film. From that running time, we can subtract a few more minutes for scene changes, including multiple instances when poor Tatum had to rise from the dead and make a beeline for the wings. Awkward. You'd think they could manage a true blackout at the Queens Road barn.
The script could use a little more meat. The texturizing I miss most is a glimmer of what life in Argo was like for the blacks who lived there. But late in the evening, we do get a reason to care about Tatum's death: his murderer says the project Tatum was working on would have attracted more blacks to the town.
The Chris Timmons set design suggests that a huge chunk of the annual budget went into A Funny Thing to begin the season and another was squirreled away for the tech demands of The Foreigner in January. But Timmons' lighting design helps toward a polished impression for Heat, meshing well with costume designs by Suzy Hartness — except in the Klan scene. My wife Sue tells me that the Klansmen's sheets were too skimpy. I couldn't verify that because the onstage headlights were trained directly into my eyes.
At the hectic pace that Blamy demands, it's remarkable how consistently his cast hits the moments of hatred, scorn and hostility with maximum impact. Ron McClelland and Lamar Wilson have the most explosive roles as Tibbs and Gillespie, as different as L.A. and Alabama should be. McClelland has the longer fuse as he methodically goes about his detective work, very capable in executing what I saw of Brett Gentile's fight choreography. Yet the memory of what he does with the coroner's toothpicks at the morgue will linger with me longer. Wilson is a fabulous malignity as the chief, set off by seemingly everything, snarling and grudging even as he recognizes Tibbs' talents. It's a special treat when these two finally part ways.
The gallery of suspects even includes Wood, so there must be nuance mixed in with the Deep South menace. Robert Crozier doesn't dial up Wood's open-mindedness and amiability too far, so his mini-explosion has a layer of racism when Tibbs catches him out on his secret detour on the night of the murder. Far more virulent in their racism are the third cop, Pete, given a wonderfully benighted sincerity by Dan Brunson, and the far dopier Josh Looney, as the counterman at the diner.
Tibbs uncovers all kinds of bigots in his rambles. John Hartness plays four of them in a busy evening of costume changing; two of them are prime suspects. Phil Taylor is slightly less busy in two key roles, the pompous coroner and the lowlife Mr. Purdy, whose daughter piles on the embattled Wood by accusing him of rape. Seen to enticing advantage in the opening scene, Jennifer Barnette is more than sufficiently toothsome as the slutty Noreen Purdy.
More discreet than these racists is Mayor Schubert. Ted Weiner gives hizzoner a gentlemanly veneer and moonlights as councilman George Endicott, a devout Klan supporter. Serving as Melanie's protector enhances the mayor's courtliness. In her Charlotte debut, Lindsay Anderson bestows a patrician propriety on the murder victim's daughter, with enough sweetness to make her a worthy destination for Officer Wood's roving eye.