Review: Aurora’s BURNPILE Tugs on Atlanta Heartstrings

It’s a sinister-looking poster, right? That title combined with the visual of a woman holding a match and a mischievous look on her face that says, “Just dare me not to do it”-honestly, I thought I was walking into a tragedy. But Aurora’s nostalgic Throw me on the Burnpile and Light me Up is anything but sinister in this one-woman production starring Taylor M. Dooley.

The summary on the flier hardly does it justice. This piece sees Boss recalling memories from a solid year or so of elementary school in rural Georgia. Delivered as though every memory happened yesterday, Dooley embodies a 3rd/4th-grader as she tells anecdote after anecdote about her life. “Boss” (as her father calls her) is the daughter of a pro bono lawyer who defends criminals most of the judgmental folks in the town would call scumbags. He uses his cases as a way to gently educate her, particularly in his philosophy, which she repeatedly parrots, “Everyone deserves a defender.”

Very reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Boss recalls events in her life as nothing special, not realizing in her innocence that bringing Sam Cook tapes to murderers in jail isn’t exactly a regular part of most childhoods. She refers to the cases and clients as “ours”- hers and her daddy’s. It’s a sweet touch. In her wide-eyed desire to help her hero, her father, Boss genuinely sees herself as part of the defense team. The way she tells it, she is indispensable.

As fits the backdrop motif to the story, the burnpile- a collection of belongings of Boss and her father’s clients who died on death row- very literally serves as the backdrop in the play. Stacked high upstage, it visibly includes items she mentions in her stories. Kudos to the design team for that noticeable detail. From all these objects, the faux monkey grass bordering the stage, and the candles she lights before every new scene, some combination thereof created a musty, summery scent. This olfactory touch puts the audience right in Boss’s backyard as she paces around and tells us about her life.

From the moment she first addresses the audience, Dooley makes an individual connection with everyone as if each audience member is her best friend. Maybe not a feat for intense memories, but she keeps the connection throughout the entirety of the show. Her engaging eye contact, active childlike demeanor, and her impeccable impersonations of every person in her life bring an urgency to her serious stories, but keep the audience actively engaged even in the silly, childlike stories.

She solidifies this connection by breaking the fourth wall in her pauses for laughter, directing the next line at people laughing the loudest, adding a smooth, “Yeah, and you won’t believe what happened next…” effect. At first glance it seems that Dooley’s friends must all be on the front rows. But they aren’t. Boss’s are.

The lighting stands out as a significant piece of the story’s tapestry, creating a marvelous car headlights look at one detailed moment, and throughout the piece, distinctly changing for emphasis. In the first half, Dooley sporadically transforms into adult Boss to tell some portions of stories, with lighting playing a large part in her transformation. Quite an intriguing choice, though it ultimately proves confusing due to its inconsistency and ultimate discontinuation.

The depiction of Boss and her father and the way Dooley brings it to life make this one-woman show a winner. I kept apprehensively waiting for the moment she would die, or her father would suddenly do something horrible to taint her childlike hero worship of him. But neither happens. It’s just a sweet, meaningful look at two formative years in the life of a child in an adult world, dealing optimistically with harsh realities, not knowing hers is anything but a normal childhood.

Photo Flash: First Look at THROW ME ON THE BURNPILE AND LIGHT ME UP at Aurora Theatre

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