THEATER REVIEW: “John Ball’s In The Heat Of The Night”

Few of us remember the racist ’60s fondly, and the characters in “John Ball’s In The Heat Of The Night” offer several reasons why.

Let’s see, we have Sam Wood (Jake Rosko), a young hornydog police officer given to spying on Noreen Purdy (Rachael VanWormer), a casual seductress in an upstairs window; police chief Gillespie (Tom Stephenson) racist and apparently in over his head but swimming as fast as he can; Pete (Brian Mackey), another cop who seems to be a Klansman in a police uniform; the usual assortment of poor white trash and rich businessmen and Ralph (Fred Harlow), a waiter who will under no circumstances serve a black person.

So when businessman Charles Tatum (Eric Poppick) is found dead on the road in rural Alabama in 1962, and Sam finds a black transient at the train station, he doesn’t hesitate to arrest the stranger for murder.

Chief Bill Gillespie (Tom Stephenson) is thrilled about the arrest – until he learns that Virgil Tibbs (Vimel Sephus) is also a police officer – in Pasadena, Calif., on the way home after visiting his mother. Not only that, he’s an investigator with special expertise in homicide.

Thus begins a roller-coaster round of arresting and releasing suspects – with intermittent demands from the mayor (Tim West) to find the killer now, “before the boys get impatient and rough him up. A black boy swinging from a tree, and we got the FBI down here.”

Francis Gercke directs Matt Palfrey’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel through July 13 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.

No fewer than five suspects (including two cops) will be arrested in the course of this 95-minute play, as Gillespie and his crew stumble their way (with Tibbs’ help) to the real killer.

This is a standard police procedural of the type found all over TV stations these days, though with a racist twist not often seen (and Gillespie’s early crack to Tibbs, “Find a pot of gold out there in Queersville?” reminds us how far we’ve come in that direction).

The cast is excellent across the board. Stephenson’s unabashedly racist Gillespie provides a fine counterpoint to Sephus’ studiedly reserved Tibbs. Likewise, Rosko’s eager-beaver but open-hearted Sam balances colleague Mackey’s hateful Pete. Harlow is memorable both as the waiter who won’t serve Tibbs and as another possible suspect.

Poppick is fine in a variety of small roles and has the distinction of dying four or five times onstage, as various possibilities play out before us. Eddie Yaroch plays both white trash characters – Purdy and Oberst – to the hilt.

VanWormer and Jessica John provide another contrast, VanWormer sadly needy as “Baby Doll” temptress Noreen Purdy, and Jessica John fine as Tatum’s elegant daughter Melanie.

Gercke keeps the pace snappy, though the play’s 35 scenes could do with a bit more physical separation than ion’s tiny stage allows. Much of the time, the overall impression is one of darkness as required by the attempt to isolate the action.

The technical crew gets a serious workout here, as changes in time and location necessitate a slew of lighting and sound cues. Kudos to Melanie Chen (sound) and Karin Filijan (lighting) for keeping up.

This play is a departure from ion’s usual edgy fare, in fact a bit of a dip into the mainstream theater pool. I congratulate them on a fine production, but can’t help missing the kind of thought-provoking play for which they are justly celebrated.

The details

“John Ball’s In The Heat Of The Night” plays through July 13 at ion theatre, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Saturday at 4 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.