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Bowie Community Theatre’s In the Heat of the Night

This Night is so dark that you strain to see the actors

Police chief Gillespie (James Estepp), Virgil Tibbs (Sean James) and Sam Wood (Joe Del Balzo) confront prejudice that saturates a town, working together to solve a murder.

Bowie Community Theatre is up to its rafters in shady business again. The troupe that brought you Murder By Misadventure and Who Dunit? now turns to the segregated South for a crime drama with the twisted face of bigotry. Matt Pelfrey’s 2010 stage adaptation of In the Heat of the Night is based on the John Ball novel that inspired an Oscar-winning film and an Emmy-winning TV series.
    The place: Argo, Alabama. The time: 1962. The crime: murder. The victim: developer Charles Tatum (Paul Berry). The motive: none evident. The suspect: the nearest black man, Virgil Tibbs (Sean James), who just happens to be a Pasadena Police detective on vacation.
    Once Police Chief Gillespie (James Estepp) gets past the shocking realization that this negro is not only innocent but also his peer, he puts him to work on the case with good cop Sam Wood (Joe Del Balzo) and bad cop Pete (Jeff Mocho). Sam and the chief gradually warm to the dark interloper with the sleuthing skills of Sherlock Holmes. Pete stews in the venomous prejudice that saturates the town.
    Several possible murder scenarios are played out as we meet the townsfolk/suspects under the aspect of a dangling noose. There’s the precocious teen Noreen Purdy (Samantha Yangilmau) who’s in a family way; her irate father (Ken Kienas); a vagrant named Harvey Oberst (Kienas); Mayor Scubert (Bill Hahn); hash slinger Ralph (Alex Creamer);  Eric Kaufman, a business associate of the deceased (Creamer); the victim’s sweet daughter Melanie  Tatum (Terri Trudo-Tinajera); Tatum’s friend Endicott (Berry); and the banker, Al Jennings (Berry). Then there are the cops, themselves, and a posse of Klansmen.
    After several missteps, the killer is revealed, Tibbs says goodbye and the sleepy town returns to its insular battle with social progress.
    The stage adaptation differs from the film in several regards, but most significantly in its focus on Tibbs’ growing relationship with Officer Wood over the chief. The script is compelling and the leads are good. James’ Tibbs walks a fine line between insult and indifference while Estepp’s chief affects a weary professional swagger. Good cop Del Balzo seems right at home in the uniform. Bad cop Mocho enlivens even his quietest moments onstage with effective and watchable mime. And Yangilmau is a sympathetic Lolita.
    Supporting them, as mandated in the script, is a gumbo of townsfolk who sometimes appear interchangeable.
    The real problem is death by scene change, so that a quarter of the action is devoted to silent non-action. There are 102 light cues, most to accommodate vignettes that last only a minute or two. The program advertises one-and-a-half hours with no intermission, yet opening night ran almost two hours. You do the math.
    Such a production requires careful staging. With such a vast, underutilized space and so few set pieces, momentum could have been maintained with multiple spotlights. Speaking of lights, this is the darkest show I have ever seen, taking the notion of the unenlightened South a bit too literally. Dimming the stage to such excess that the characters are obscured does not instill the grittiness of cinema noir. It just leaves the audience craving light like Alaskans in January.
    In the Heat of the Night has a bold social message and a clever plot with dialog that repeatedly rouses the audience to vocal reaction. I wish Bowie Community Theatre’s pace and staging lived up to the play and its strong leads.

Director and set designer: Estelle Miller. Lights: Garrett Hyde. Sound: Greg Pearson. Costumes: Estelle Miller and John Nunemaker.

Playing thru Mar. 30. FSa 8pm, Su  2pm at Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park, Rt. 3 S., Bowie. $17 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219;