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The Barter Blog

"In the Heat of the Night" review by Bonny Gable

April 11, 2018

One might think that a murder mystery story that has lived as a book, a movie, and spawned a TV series has no more surprises left. Think again. Surprises and thrills abound in Barter Theatre’s production of “In the Heat of the Night” adapted by Matt Pelfrey, based on John Ball’s novel. You may think you know who the killer is. You don’t.

A murder grips the sleepy little town of Argo, Alabama on a hot summer night in 1962, catching new and untested Chief of Police Gillespie and his underlings unprepared. Overzealous to bring in a suspect, deputy Sam Wood arrests Virgil Tibbs, a Negro man waiting quietly at a train station. Virgil, of the famous “They call me Mister Tibbs!” is actually an expert homicide detective from California. Forces beyond their control oblige Gillespie and Tibbs to work together to solve the murder.

The opening scene immediately grabs you and fast paced action thereafter enthralls at every unpredictable turn. The hapless, untrained Gillespie and the confident, seasoned Tibbs form an unlikely duo, especially in this small Southern town where racial prejudice runs as thick as the smoldering humidity. But they soldier on, each according to his individual methods. Unmatched in experience, but evenly matched in determination and respect for the law, they are strangely and inevitably drawn together.

As the story unfolds within this potentially explosive situation the language we hear is what one would expect in 1960s Deep South. The venom with which many Argo residents spit out racial slurs and bigoted remarks is palpable, and the words jarring to our ears. But telling a story truthfully requires this kind of authenticity. Undeniable reality takes us deeper into their world where we can explore all the possible outcomes.

But a surprising amount of humor is weaved into this high-stakes situation. Pelfrey has found just the right places where the clashing of opposing forces results in a comical moment. Exciting tension is balanced with comic relief. Director

Jasper McGruder has given sensitive but courageous guidance in this work, bringing out an impeccably nuanced performance from his actors. While the ensemble work of the cast is remarkable, there are standout performances as well.

Rick McVey is outstanding as Chief Gillespie. He perfectly captures Gillespie’s overcompensating fierceness laced with consternation at his own inadequacies in the face of solving the case that can make or break his career. Amara Aja’s performance is a joy to behold as the cool and efficient Tibbs, facing the tigers with finesse, intelligence, and a huge courage. Justin Tyler Lewis gives a sensitive turn as the conflicted Sam Wood, the weight of what his Southern roots has taught him wrestling with the obvious gifts and humanity of Tibbs. Lewis also serves as fight choreographer, serving up complex and exciting fight scenes, expertly and believably executed.

Nick Koesters gives gripping performances as he faultlessly reveals the raw-boned primitive essence of Harvey Oberst and other seedy Argo residents. Zacchaeus Kimbrell as Pete plays the unapologetic bigot to the core. Nicolas Piper, Michael Poisson, and Sam McCalla all excel in multiple roles, each portraying a wide range of characters that span a variety of class levels. Hope Quinn perfectly embodies the simple-minded siren Noreen Purdy, caught up in her own dream world and lies. And the always-engaging Sarah Laughland charms as the lovely Melanie Tatum.

Hana Lee’s set design works in perfect tandem with lighting by Andrew Morehouse to capture the feel of the oppressing Southern heat and the dour and spare locals of Argo. Economical but realistic set pieces interchange seamlessly, keeping pace with the brisk action and giving a cinematic feel to the flow of the show. Sound by Miles Polaski and costumes by Ashley Campos flawlessly complete the effect.

Matt Pelfrey has accomplished quite a feat with this script. He maintains the feel of 1960s South created in the novel, but strangely the dialogue sounds contemporary. Perhaps because the social and political conditions that gripped our country in the 1960s were not so different from what we are experiencing now.

Barter Theatre continues to do what theatre is meant to do – “hold the mirror up to nature,” as Moliere said, and inspire us to examine our souls. This production brings new meaning to the term “must-see.” It is also a “need-to-see.” It was a story for the 60s. It is a story for now.

“In the Heat of the Night” runs through May 12.

For tickets and information: 276-628-3991 or