“Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up,” written by Oscar-nominated (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) Lucy Alibar, is directed by Ryan Rilette and has opened virtually at the Round House Theatre. The play is a one-woman show starring Beth Hylton (an Everyman Theatre resident company member), one of the best local talents who carries the weight of this play with aplomb.
The play is semi-autobiographical but you will notice parallels to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It has two main themes. The first is that everyone, no matter how heinous their crimes, has the right to competent counsel when on trial under the 6th Amendment. This is presented to us by the character of Daddy who is the father of the storyteller, Lamby. The adult Lamby takes us back to the year when she was in the fourth grade. Daddy is defending Gary Duane Atkins, a serial murderer who he doesn’t think is innocent. Daddy just feels that Atkins deserves a chance to live and for the jury to hear his mitigating circumstances. Lamby is bullied in school because of her father’s ideals, not only by fellow students, but by her teacher, Miss Walker.
The second theme is how we treat our human “trash.” This is exemplified in the chilling story of Kayla, a fragile child whom Lamby befriends. Kayla is one of those children society has turned its backs on. She is a sweet orphan who lives with her cruel grandmother. When she is obviously horribly abused, Lamby brings Kayla’s bruises to the attention of Miss Walker who not only does nothing to help the child, she calls Lamby a tattletale and tells the grandmother. In the eyes of the small Georgia town where they live, Kayla is just a piece of trash that can easily be discarded and forgotten like the men Daddy defends. Most of Daddy’s clients could have been helped if society had cared when they were young and being raised by abusers and suffering from mental illness. These people are ignored and left to run off to the woods; but sometimes before they disappear, they do harm to others.
The play is full of wonderful characters we never see, including Daddy, Lamby’s mother, her younger brother called Son Of, Gary Duane, Kayla, Miss Walker, and even an oversexed goat named Carl. Despite the dark themes, there is much humor in the play. Alibar often puts a humorous story right before a depressing one which underlines the somber points.
Hylton is superb. She gathers us around her campfire, a symbol for the burnpile, and draws us into her tale. Her southern drawl never disappears as she retells the adventures of her character. We see the pride as she talks about her father and her anger when she sees the cruelty in the world. Hylton’s performance alone, as the saying goes, is worth the price of admission.
…superb…Hylton’s performance alone…is worth the price of admission.
Rilette’s staging enables Hylton to pull us into her narrative. The actor moves around the campfire sometimes as Lamby and then other times as a thread linking the audience to Lamby’s past.
Paige Hathaway’s scenic design seems simplistic but assists in making us understand the metaphor of the burnpile. The burnpile is a huge mound that sits on the family’s property. It is made up of old furniture and the traces of the men Daddy has defended who were put to death — and also where Daddy wants to be placed when he dies. It is symbolic of how we treat those in poverty, especially in rural areas. Amid all this deep religious life, there seems to be no room for this “trash.”
The lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II creates a hypnotic effect that lures us into Lamby’s web. The sound design and original music by Matthew M. Nielson transports us to that small Southern town, as does the costume design by Ivania Stack.
A thumbs up also goes to the dialect coach, Melissa Flaim, who is responsible for Hylton’s regional accent that sounds very authentic.
“Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up” will make you laugh, cry, and cringe. Like the Harper Lee story, it spotlights societal inequities in our courts, places of worship, social and mental health systems, and economy. In many places in this country and in many places in this world, it is not who you are, but your financial worth that decides if you should survive or be thrown on the burnpile.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes.
“Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up” EXTENDED through June 13, 2021. The play was filmed in front of a limited audience at Round House Theatre. For tickets, go to this link. For more information about this production, future productions, and Round House Theatre, go to their website.
If you would like to know more about Beth Hylton, you can read Susan Brall’s interview with her from March 17, 2019 here.