Sean Phillips in In the Heat of the Night
(© Derrick Belcham)
Sean Phillips in In the Heat of the Night
(© Derrick Belcham)
While it initially gained fame over 40 years ago as a novel, and then an Academy Award-winning film as well as a TV series, In the Heat of the Night, John Ball's 1965 exploration of interracial strife in Alabama, proves still topical in Matt Pelfrey's succinct stage adaptation, now being presented by Godlight Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters. Better still, in director Joe Tantalo's sure hands, the result is a tight -- and timely -- little thriller.

The setting is pretty tight as well. Getting maximum use out of a miniscule black box space, designer Maruti Evans has placed the audience, only two rows deep, on all four sides of what starts out -- pre-"curtain" -- as a voile-draped enclosure, within which a teenage girl (Scarlett Thiele) wearing only a white bra and denim cutoffs writhes in slo-mo pin-up poses.

Once the action starts in earnest, with the discovery of a corpse, the white sheets come down, revealing a taped-off space somewhat smaller than a boxing ring. Hanging dead center is a noose -- a potent reminder of the fate likely to befall a stranger in town who happens to be a color the locals don't care for. That person would be Virgil Tibbs (Sean Phillips, giving a performance of admirable restraint and polish), a homicide detective from California, who has chosen an inauspicious time to visit his mother. He's immediately pegged as the killer, and even before he's hustled to the slammer, he manages to get in a few low-key jibes that give his captors pause. Tibbs is someone who knows he's the smartest person for miles around, but feels no need to rub it in.

Providing perfect counterpoint is Gregory Konow as Gillespie, the beer-bellied, balding police chief -- a banally evil good ole boy who comes to accord Tibbs a grudging respect. As his deputies, Nick Paglino and Sam Whitten are equally skilled and thoroughly convincing in their roles. Ryan O'Callaghan is terrific as a sequential pair of young bigots (even if the cast-economizing transition from one role to the next is confusing). His characters' hatred and suspicion go so deep, they make him tremble with rage; you get a visceral sense of the toxicity that intolerance breeds.

Not all the performances are as assured. Julianne Nelson is never fully at home as the newly murdered man's daughter; her hands on hips don't exactly bespeak distress. And when actors are literally within arm's reach -- and almost in your lap -- there's no getting away with the kind of hammy theatrics we get from Bryce Hodgson, whose pointy-fingered gesticulations temporarily reroute this otherwise highly disciplined ensemble exercise into parodic territory.