My Southern grandmother used to say, “They all thought I hung the moon.” She liked to smoke and drink, and her voice had turned into a Lauren Bacall–like baritone. One of my male cousins did a great imitation of her. Given the endless complications and moral terrors of that heritage, I approached Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up with no small degree of trepidation.
But I need not have worried. Oscar-nominated Playwright Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) offers a portrait of a very different South. She holds up a mirror to the suffering engendered by rural poverty, and the shameful way the destitute are often treated. With the poetic, imaginative, and comic touches Alibar brings to her writing, she creates a world that is as magical as it is moving.
Our heroine, Lamby, beautifully played by Beth Hylton, is a fourth-grader. She lives in a small farmhouse in a watermelon field. Her father is a criminal defense attorney, and his clients sometimes end up on death row. But he believes passionately in the right of every human being to a defense. And he angers those of the locals who don’t appreciate his “no cryin’, no Jesus” approach to life.
Lamby adores her father. When she breaks her arm at school, he throws her over his shoulder and takes her to the hospital. She compares the two of them to outlaws Belle Starr and Jesse James.
In describing to Lamby why he represents murderers, Daddy tells her about one of his clients who was always treated like trash. He was too poor to get the mental help he needed, never educated, and given drugs at an early age.
Daddy says, “They just leave him out there, hoping he’ll run off to the woods and die. Well, surprise! They do run off to the woods and die, eventually, but not before taking a hell of a lot more people with them.”
In the back of the house is a giant “burn pit.” It contains old furniture Dad broke when he was mad. Boxes of the last pitiful belongings the “capital men” gave to their lawyer before they died. The country is full of old things, too. Fragments of Civil War cannons. Dinosaur bones. Arrowheads.
Daddy’s cases haunt Lamby’s days. Gary Duane Atkins, IQ 79. Christine, Christine the beauty queen. Ted, whose IQ was 124, 140, or 160, depending on who you believe.
Lamby gets a new job: helping her father in the office. She answers the phone, types, and procures requests for his clients. One wants toy cars. Another wants candy. Gary Duane Atkins wants art supplies, so she provides water colors. He gives them pictures. Blue sky. Yellow fields. A man flying, in pencil. A giant heart, rising out of the water.
Gary Duane has sky blue eyes, often has his mouth open, and appears to be wondering what the hell is going on. He is a murderer. But he has a six-year-old mental capacity. “The trial never tells the whole story,” her father says.
Lamby has friends: a “cracker” girl, Pentecostal, whose grandmother never lets her take a bath. Red dirt down to her bones. She and this friend, Kayla, rescue a book about the saints from the burnpile and look through it excitedly.
Daddy has a “taking the Christ out of Christmas” party. They have a goat with unhealthy habits who lives behind the burnpile. Gary Duane Atkins loses his appeals.
Under the leadership of Director and Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, Costume Designer Ivania Stack, and Lighting Designer Harold F. Burgess II enhance the effectiveness of the production. The sound design and original music (Matthew M. Nielson) add depth to our perception of Lamby’s world.
Lamby’s father calls her “Boss.” They call her little brother “Son of.” She dislikes the forest; so many of her father’s clients were apprehended there. She shoos the cats off the porch when there’s a judge coming over. “You don’t know how good you have it,” Daddy says. “You don’t know how lucky you are.” Maybe she doesn’t. But maybe, after all, she does.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, with no intermission.
EXTENDED: Round House Theatre’s production of Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up is available for on-demand streaming through June 13, 2021. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling 240.644.1100 or ordering online.
Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up
By Lucy Alibar
Directed by Ryan Rilette
Lamby: Beth Hylton
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway; Costume Designer: Ivania Stack; Lighting Designer: Harold F. Burgess II; Sound Design & Original Music: Matthew M. Nielson; Dialect Coach: Melissa Flaim; Dramaturg: Naysan Mojgani; Assistant Scenic Designer: Andrew Cohen; Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman; Director of Photography: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
Production Technical Director: Jose Abraham; Props Coordinator: Matt Saxton; Location Audio: Matthew M. Nielson; Camera Operators: John Grove, Nate Pesce; Electrician/Light Board Programmer: Cassandra Saulski; Production Assistant: Niew Bharyaguntra; Props Master: Kasey Hendricks
Editor: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; Sound Editing & Mix: Matthew M. Nielson
Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up is sponsored by Nan Beckley and Patti & Jerry Sowalsky.