‘In the Heat of the Night’ at L.A. Theatre Works at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts

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L.A. Theatre Works delivered a searing, disturbing, and flat-out brilliant rendition of In the Heat of the Night – John Ball’s sizzling 1965 noir thriller, adapted for the stage by acclaimed playwright Matt Pelfrey. The radio theater production made a stop Sunday night at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, reminding audiences just how timely, provocative, and unsettlingly relevant the content is in our modern world.

Gillespie: Virgil’s a pretty fancy name for a Nigger boy from California. What do they call you where you’re from?

Virgil Tibbs: They call me Mister Tibbs! 

The story that made “My Name Is Mister Tibbs” one of cinema’s most commonly quoted lines is brilliantly re-imagined by director Brian Kite in this radio play format, where a talented ensemble of seven actors brings the town of Argo, Alabama to life – warts, racial tensions, and all. Based on the award-winning novel which inspired the Oscar-winning film and the Emmy-winning television series, this off-Broadway hit embroils Virgil Tubbs, a visiting black detective from California in a murder investigation, forcing an uneasy partnership with the honest and bigoted Chief of Police. As Tibbs moves closer to solving the crime, the racial hatred simmering in the town builds to an exciting – and disturbing – climax. The language is raw, the tensions are real, and L.A. Theatre Works gives this work an energy and urgency that make for a memorable night at the theatre.

Projection Designer Sean Cawelti enhances the tensions of the plot with images that suggest the darker sides of Argo. Without being heavy handed, the projections enhance the fine work being done by the actors on stage. Carin Jacobs’ costumes are suggestive of the period and the myriad characters the actors take on, enhancing without overwhelming the piece. Rich Rose’s set is simple and elegant, allowing the words and the richly drawn characters to take center stage. Dan Ionazi’s lighting, coupled with Mark Holden and Michael Lopez’s sound design helped to drive the central, heated urgency of the plot.

One of the unique aspects of seeing a radio play live is that the actors deliver the lines directly to the audience, not each other, creating an in-your-face attitude that served the grittiness and tension of this piece exceptionally well. Another aspect unique to this format is that the foley and sound effects were created by the actors while onstage. The sound effects brilliantly – and at times amusingly – synchronized with the actions suggested by the words being delivered onstage.

L.A. Theatre Works assembled a masterful cast for this touring production of In the Heat of the Night. Ryan Vincent Anderson delivered a controlled and sensitively nuanced portrayal of Virgil Tibbs, balancing the seething rage at the injustice of the prejudice around him with a man who knows his own inherent worth and value and will not be denied by his naysayers. James Morrison believably portrayed Chief Gillespie’s transformation from a bullying bigot to a man who gains grudging respect for Tibbs with honesty and candor. The complex relationship between these two highly individualistic – and yet somehow similar – men yields some of the biggest fireworks in the show – and Anderson and Morrison deliver.

Michael Hammond deserves special praise for his sensitive portrayal of the conflicted officer, Sam Wood, who must learn to confront the prejudice in his town – and in himself – through his relationship with Tibbs. Hammond delivered a compelling and richly drawn performance.

Travis Johns adds dimension to the despicable and morally reprehensible Pete, lifting him from what might have been a stock character into a seriously flawed yet believable individual. Kalen Harriman deftly portrayed two very different female roles, giving each weight and complexity. Darren Richardson and Tom Virtue shifted chameleon-like through various roles, portraying many memorable and distinct residents of the town of Argo.

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In the Heat of the Night was performed on November 16, 2014, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts-4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA, but continues on a national tour. For future performances at The Center for the Arts, check their calendar of events.

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Diane Jackson Schnoor
Diane Jackson Schnoor is delighted to be back in the DC metro area after nearly two decades away. She earned her BA at The American University, with a minor in theatre arts, and holds a master's and doctorate in elementary education from the University of Virginia. A lifelong devotee of the arts, Diane's reviews and arts feature stories have been published in The Millbrook Independent and DC Metro Theatre Arts. As an actress, Diane has performed with the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, the Fort Bragg Playhouse, TriArts Sharon Playhouse, and in musicals and dance shows in Millbrook, NY, Amenia, NY, and Lakeville, CT. Her day job career has run the gamut from adjunct college faculty to preschool director to public relations director and back again, but her primary occupation these days is as chauffeur to the two young actresses who inhabit her home in Winchester, VA.