Based on the award-winning novel by John Ball, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company opened a new adaptation of In The Heat Of The Night on February 2nd. After the story had found life through film and television, playwright Matt Pelfrey was allowed to adapt the novel, with some added twists, for stage. Set in 1962 in Argo, Alabama, In the Heat of the Night follows the investigation of a murder in a southern town where the prime suspect, a black stranger who turns out to be a “crimes against persons” detective from California, is forced to work with the town’s prejudiced law-enforcement personnel to solve the crime. Together the unlikely pair of Californian detective and Southern small-town sheriff must wade through local politics and scandal to narrow down the list of potential murderers, some of who are right under their noses.
Previously working out of several locations, Pittsburgh Playwrights most recently came to rest at 937 Liberty Avenue – not that you would know it from the street or once you get buzzed inside the lobby. A small hand-written placard on the exterior intercom system was the only notice that this was where you could find the Pittsburgh Playwrights and a confusing interior full of halls and staircases and locked doors made finally finding the actual theater a frustrating relief.
After settling down into the lobby that seems to have been frozen in a ‘70s college theater prop and furniture warehouse, complete with artificial Christmas tree, the audience becomes restless as time passes. Ten till the hour and the doors haven’t opened. Five till curtain and no one has been seated. 8:00 comes and goes and no one is speaking of Michelangelo. But the doors finally open and the lobby occupants shuffled in to ancient seats, but plenty of legroom. Mark Clayton Southers, the Artistic Director, stalled while programs were finally passed out, at almost a quarter after the hour, and rambled on about his previous career as a playwright that had sold out 200-seat theaters in Chicago.
However, inconveniences leading up to the beginning of the show should not be held against the actors who convincingly performed a challenging show in a ragged space that was as stifling as the imagined Alabama night.
Opening with a scene between classic southern cops Daniel Pivovar, as police Chief Gillespie, tripped over his words, but this misstep was momentary as Pivovar easily settled into his role and pulled out a convincing performance both visually and audibly. As Chief Gillespie interacted with his Californian counterpart, and the thorn in his side, Virgil Tibbs, played by Kevin Moore, his subtle change of character was palpable and more than 100% believable.
Pivovar confirmed that Chief Gillespie was the true focal point of the show by providing character growth while many of his Argo co-residents remained static. Gillespie was the volatile counterpart to Moore’s Sherlock-esque Tibbs that created a dynamic clash of personalities and worldviews. In a lesser way officer Sam Wood, played by Jonathan Visser, bucked the racism and prejudice rampant in his town through an attempt to get to know Tibbs, but as the show continued his initial spark faded and his presence on stage seemed to diminish.
Actors changed costumes and characters at the turn of the hat, which added a challenge unique to productions that are ensemble based. In particular, Arthur Peden excelled as two completely different characters, Mr. Endicott and Mayor Schubert, convincingly changing voice and body language to the point where he was virtually unrecognizable; and Brett Sullivan Santry took the role of victim Charles Tatum and ran with it, stealing the show as he re-enacted his own murder.
Going along with the haggard set, the costuming was an odd mix of perfect
period pieces, like a pair of delightfully mod glasses, and items that could have been in the actor’s own drawers, like an outfit that was early ‘00s as opposed to mid ‘60s that stuck out like a sore thumb. Other obvious inconsistencies were the barcode on either a brand new or newly rented diner apron, the lack of stockings on the female characters, the duct tape seeming to hold a character’s shoe and ankle together, the occasional non-pleated pair of trousers, and the stitch holding closed a blazer vent.
But occasional costuming snafus did not detract from the production wrapping up with a twist expertly executed by Tal Kroser, who played Pete, the most vitriolic and disgusting of Argo’s police officers and probably one of the more difficult characters to portray. Krosser, as Pete, was a consistent thread woven throughout the show and when he appeared on stage a believable southern drawl and the embodiment of hatred followed.
However, like with a fine meal, you eat with your eyes first and the Pittsburgh Playwrights suffered in their presentation. As a whole, while the actors clearly poured heart and soul into their work and gave their audience a well-acted performance, In the Heat of the Night may or may not be worth the ticket price charged but you’ll have to see it for yourself.
In the Heat of the Night runs from February 2nd through March 11th. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Photos by Christopher Chapman Sr.