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Theatre Review: "In the Heat of the Night" at Falcon Theater in Newport

There’s more than one mystery on stage at Falcon Theatre, where a solid community theatre revival of detective drama continues weekends through Feb. 28 in Newport.
Of course the first mystery is the big ‘Whodunit?’ In this tiny, racist Alabama town in the early Sixties, where the Klan rules and Civil Rights is an unwelcome rumor, who killed the white developer who has come to town with the promise of jobs?
It’s no mystery that the local cops have wasted no time in finding a suspect: a black stranger at the train station. Among the strikes against him, he’s not just black (the ‘N’ word gets a lot of action in this play), he’s uppity and he has more cash than he should.
Too bad they didn’t look at his ID, which identifies him as West Coast homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Derek Snow). 
What follows is more than 30 mostly quick, cinematic scenes that move the plot. (If you remember the hit movie from a few decades back, a lot – but not all – will be familiar.) For instance, our murder victim (Rich Setterberg) gets to die again and again, as potential suspects are considered. Setterberg also plays some guitar over in the far corner of the stage, helping set mood with percussive support from Allison Evans (when she’s not playing the town hussy.)
On Falcon’s tiny stage, a handful of portable set pieces get the job done as many things in many scenes, the 10-person cast is seated at the rear. It’s efficient, but not evocative. I can’t help wishing for a minimal design that would also have ratcheted up the tension.
Director Ed Cohen keeps the 90-minute one-act moving. (Can’t wait till Falcon replaces the chairs.) Heat of the Night rates a solid “B,” but communicating the high stakes would have served the play better, particularly in a moment in time when race issues have erupted again.
He’s rounded up a solid amateur cast with a couple of stand-out performances to take the audience by delighted surprise – but an awful lot of interesting things happens off-stage -- which characters come on stage and tell us about. 
The show’s other big mystery: Why are area directors not clamoring for Simon Powell? Powell was terrific as a student at Northern Kentucky University a few years back and he steals In the Heat of the Night as a naïve deputy who begins to think Tibbs is a smart, regular guy – an opinion that doesn’t sit well with the rest of the town. 
I don’t mean “steals” as in showboating. Powell is just that good. I hope we see him a lot more. Michael Hall is solid, as always, as Sheriff Gillespie, fielding calls from the mayor, working with idiots and saddled with Tibbs; his bigotry is bone deep. Snow, also always solid, was occasionally playing it a little too California laid-back on opening night. As the detective leading us through the case – Tibbs needs to be innately in charge all the time.
Succeeding best in smaller roles are the high, intense energy of Dan Maloney as one of the deputies and Tom Peters as the first real suspect. Peters is way too old for the role but he’s so persuasive you don’t care – and you never doubt for a minute that this guy doesn’t want to get railroaded into prison.
Because this is a 21st century adaptation, don’t go looking for Gillespie to learn anything from this experience. No warm fuzzies here. The language used in this place, in this time hasn’t been cleaned up either, so be warned if you’re easily offended. 
In the Heat of the Night, through Feb. 28. Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets $19, $17 students (with ID) and seniors. 513-479-6783 and here.
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: Mike Hall (left) and Derek Snow (provided)
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