ENTERTAINMENT 04/26/2016, 02:55pm
‘In the Heat of the Night’ conjures a tense turning point
@HedyWeissCritic | email
The film version of “In the Heat of the Night” — directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger — arrived on screens in 1967, just three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And it is worth recalling that Poitier caused quite a sensation when, in the role of Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective who becomes ensnared in a murder investigation in a small, racist Mississippi town, he asserts himself by proclaiming the simple phrase, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
‘IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT’
When: Through June 5
Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 95 minutes, with one intermission
Watching the Shattered Globe Theatre production of Matt Pelfrey’s compelling stage adaptation of the story (drawn from John Ball’s 1965 novel), serves as a vivid reminder of a period in which monumental social change was met with the most blatant blow-back by some, and by an uneasy adjustment by others, whether police officers, politicians, businessmen or ordinary citizens. The Ku Klux Klan was still very much in action, and there was widespread hatred for those white liberals “bused in” from the North, and those “Kennedy brothers” (I’ve deleted the obscenities). The vestiges of those attitudes have, of course, not been fully erased.
The play is set in motion by a murder. Charles Tatum (Tim Newell), a major real estate developer in town, has been bludgeoned to death, and his body has been found lying by the side of the road. Chief Gillespie (Joseph Wiens) — not the brightest bulb, but appointed to his job because he seemed to be free of Klan connections —rushes into action and demands that officer Sam Wood (Drew Schad) nab a suspect. Wood spots an elegantly dressed black man waiting at the local train station and demands identification (“Name, boy!”). It is Virgil Tibbs, on his way back to California after visiting his mother, and he quickly informs Wood that he is an investigator with the Pasadena, Calif., police force. It makes no difference. He is put in detention.
As it turns out, Tibbs is a homicide specialist, and once his credentials are confirmed, Gillespie reluctantly lets him take a crack at the case. He turns out to be a master of forensic investigation with a streak of fierce determination that earns him grudging respect. The case will involve countless twists and turns — and several wrongly accused suspects — before the true murderer is identified. And following the many steps and missteps in the investigation is not just compelling, but provides a fascinating glimpse of the town’s far-from-uniform inhabitants.
Wood is the young man “in transition,” trying to balance his instincts to judge each man by his character rather than his race, yet caught up in a system where such attitudes are resented, both by racist fellow officer Pete (Brian Scannell), and Gillespie, who is just trying to please the Mayor (Steve Peebles), and hold on to his job.
As for the movers and shakers in town, there is George Endicott (Glenn Fahlstrom), the real estate honcho who was Tatum’s boss, and Tatum’s aristocratic daughter, Melanie (enigmatic Christina Gorman), who describes her father as a visionary trying to transform the town. On the other end of the social spectrum are Harvey Oberst (Brad Woodard), “poor white trash” who is aided by Tibbs, and the town’s teen sexpot Noreen Purdy (Angie Shriner), and her father.
Directed by Louis Contey with both heat and light, the cast of 10 is first-rate all around. Manny Buckley, who recently did such a fine job playing the White House butler in “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” (at American Blues Theater), brings his innately patrician bearing and luminous good looks to bear on the role of Tibbs, whose forbearance in the face of a barrage of insults and humiliation registers with the greatest subtlety in his eyes and perfect posture. And Schad, with his open face and boyish demeanor, does an expert job of suggesting just how much he’d like to bond with Tibbs, while dealing with peer pressure.
The show’s fight scenes (choreographed by Christina Gorman) are so superbly done that I feared for the actors’ safety on a hard floor. Joe Schermoly’s minimalist set is richly evocative, while Michael Stanfill’s lighting is particularly notable for an erotic opening sequence that puts the “heat” in all that is to come.
Manny Buckley (from left), Brad Woodard and Angie Shriner in the Shattered Globe Theatre production of “In the Heat of the Night.” (Photo: Michael Bhttp://www.chicagotheatrereview.com/2016/04/shattered-globes-heat-of-the-night-a-blistering-experience/