In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, L.A. Theatre Works brought their semi-staged radio theater production of John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night to the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts on Appalachian State University’s campus. This production, directed by Brian Kite, explores racial tensions in 1960s Alabama in the apprehensive context of a murder mystery. John Ball’s novel was released as a film adaptation in 1967 and a television series in 1988 and was further adapted for radio stage production by Matt Pelfrey.

L.A. Theatre Works is a radio theater company that does typical broadcasts as well as taking a show on the road each year. Their touring productions feature unique takes on radio dramas that can perhaps best be likened to semi-staged performances of operas. Skeleton blocking, costumes, and onstage foley* provide a strange world for an audience accustomed to traditional theatre. The actors direct their lines and blocking to the audience, not each other; here, the result was a performance that got in your face and grabbed your attention by the collar. It was aggressive and gritty and perfectly suited for this particular play. The audience never quite got comfortable with the subject matter or how it is portrayed, nor should they have.

Pelfrey’s adaptation is not merely a radio-appropriate tweaking of the film script. What is most notable about the structure of this adaptation is the strange balance between the tensions of race relations and the suspense of the whodunit. This play strives to provide both social commentary and the thrill of a mystery, which makes for its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. The script runs the risk at times of feeling fragmented because of the abrupt shifts in focus between solving crime and confronting prejudice, but the historical experience of race is portrayed with richness and complexity precisely because of the interruptions through the layers of tension.

The cast was excellent; the actors demonstrated a variety of approaches from subtle to deliberate to colorful and yet still maintained a sense of stylistic unity. Ryan Vincent Anderson offered a carefully controlled interpretation of Virgil Tibbs, the brilliant black detective who is initially arrested as a murder suspect. Travis Johns, as Pete, was despicable in all the right ways, and Kalen Harriman shifted flexibly between two completely different roles. James Morrison played Chief Gillespie’s transformation from bullying to grudging respect with a tangible attention to detail. Darren Richardson and Tom Virtue both played a variety of roles. The multiplicity of characters, mannerisms, and voices kept both actors on their versatile toes throughout the night. Michael Hammond’s sensitive portrayal of Sam Wood, a conflicted officer who is forced to take a stand and confront the prejudice of himself and others, was top-notch.

The lighting by Dan Ionazi was stark, simple, and effective, as was Carin Jacob’s costuming. Rich Rose’s set design added a modern sense to this period piece, as did the Sean Cawelti’s projected visuals. Mark Holden and Michael Lopez were both credited as composers for the incidental music. The set design, visuals, and music all provided a strangely contemporary edginess, which appeared to be somewhat at odds with the period-piece aspects of the script. Whether the stylistic anachronisms increased the immediacy of the subject matter or merely distracted from the historical context is a matter of personal taste.

The foley and sound effects – the distinction is a blurry one and far too complex to explore here – were created by the actors while onstage. Seeing this process and the synchronization of the sound effects to the blocking was fascinating and, at times, amusing. Using a metal ice cream scoop to create the sound of the cocking of a gun works surprisingly well.

The cast engaged the audience further with a question-and-answer session following the performance. Darren Richardson noted that the company’s semi-staged approach, “involves the audience in the ritual of the theatre.” We couldn’t agree more.

Remaining southern dates on this tour include Hoover, AL (Nov. 13-14), Fairfax, VA (Nov. 16), and Norfolk, VA (February 20). (The company goes home for the holidays!).

Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series continues throughout the academic year, and during the off-season, An Appalachian Summer Festival is based there. For more details, see our calendar.

*Foley, generally used in connection with filmmaking, is defined here.