Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up is a strange show. It doesn’t feel as much like a play as it feels like watching a radio performance of a piece of literary fiction you might read in The New Yorker.
The show is presented as a series of vignettes, like chapters in a book. It follows a young girl (Lucy Alibar) as she talks about her friends and family the year she was in fourth grade, a pivotal year, when she worked for her father, a pro-bono defense attorney whose clients are all on death row. He gives her advice, both practical (don’t get in cars with strangers) and emotional (everyone deserves a defender). It’s a vivid snapshot of the life of one girl in the Florida Panhandle.
Each moment leads into the next gracefully, and details from an earlier story often make a subsequent appearance in a later chapter. It’s an honest depiction of life as a 9-year-old girl, too — Ainsley Huff, the narrator’s mortal enemy at the beginning of the show, is her best friend by the end of the story. Descriptions of people the narrator encounters are as much her own observations as they are parroted phrases her parents said (little pitchers have big ears, as the saying goes).
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Alibar hits the sweet spot in depicting small-town life, too. It’s charming at times, a place where a kid can just be a kid, but there’s a dark edge to it, like the gun and bullets that are always around her father, or the local Hardee’s, which offers free fries to customers when one of the inmates in the prison down the road gets fried (electrocuted).
All in all, it’s compellingly written stuff, but sadly, Alibar’s stage presence isn’t as strong as her narrative voice. She doesn’t seem totally comfortable onstage most of the time, though she warms up more as the show progresses. She’s most natural when she's playing the narrator’s father, a character seemingly heavily inspired by Alibar’s own father — both the fictional father and Alibar’s real father have many traits in common, including their occupation.
There’s a sense of magical realism to the staging, reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film Alibar co-wrote. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ring true most of the time, and it feels affected, like a stereotypical one-woman show. But if you sit back and listen, letting Alibar’s words wash over you, it’s a beautiful experience.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through Oct. 2. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.