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"They call me MISTER Tibbs!" - Sidney Poitier asserts for all time in the 1967 movie (and in the sequel's title). Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a police detective from Philadelphia visiting his mother in Sparta, Mississippi. He solves a "first-class murder" much to the dismay of racist Police Chief Gillespie.

Race relations were so fierce at the time of the filming, Poitier refused to travel south of the Mason- Dixon line.

Matt Pelfrey's stage adaptation - of the movie and John Ball's 1965 novel - makes several changes: Tibbs is from Pasadena, which allows for a passel of anti-California jibes; Sparta becomes Argo, Alabama in 1962; and Chief Gillespie doesn't get to squeak his black leather holster and deliver Rod Steigers equally immortal line: "I got a motive, which is money, and a body, WHICH IS DEAD!"

The conflict remains the same. In the eyes of Chief Gillespie, Tibbs isn't just a his worst nightmare: a successful African-American cop. He's a veritable Sherlock Holmes with 100 times the forensic sophistication of the local constabulary.

(Eddie Murphy uses the same dynamic - savvy black detective, lame police - in Beverly Hills Cop).

The adaptation plays as if Pelfrey wanted it to be a movie. Short, often very short scenes unfold in cinematic flickers, and the story pulses forward. Chief Gillespie slowly un-narrows his mind and accepts Tibbs' obvious expertise.

Ion Theatre has an all-star team for a cast, a talented director in Francis Gercke, and its usually high design standards (Karin Filijan's lighting and Melanie Chen's sounds fill that night with "heat").

The initial performance, capable in many ways, needed two things. First, pick up the pace. Scene changes often took longer than the scenes. This would have been less obvious if the scenes had more to say, rather than register changing attitudes and parceling out new clues.

Thanks to dialect coach Annie Hinton, the Mississippi accents were accurate, for the most part. But the cast tended to stress correct articulation rather than the emotions generating the words. One result: some serious moments came off as cartoonish, and drew unwanted laughs.

According to his bio., Vimel Sephus began acting about three years ago. That's hard to believe, since his Virgil Tibbs is so polished and true. I don't know how he does it - maybe with such been-there-before patience - but Sephus puts Virgil's backstory into almost every line.

Tom Stephenson excels as Chief Gillespie. With a heart almost too hard to crack, the refusal to pierce his prejudice comes from deep inside.

The ensemble cast does promising work: Jack Rosko (young officer Sam Wood); Tim West (two town offficials), Erick Poppick (several suspects), Eddie Yaroch (as a creepy red herring), Brian Mackey (Pete, a flaming bigot), Fred Harlow (see "Pete"), Jessica John (fractured antebellum propriety), and Rachael VanWormer, excellent as sultry Noreen Purdy.

All hit their marks and deliver. Next step: dip those accents in five fingers of bourbon and branch.


Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest, playing through July 13.

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