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Theater review: ‘Barbecue’ tosses notions into fire

STATE COLLEGE — You think you know someone. You think you know a situation. Until you find out the real story.

Penn State Centre Stage has put up Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” in the classic matchbox space of the Pavilion Theatre, and unceremoniously burns the viewer’s preconceptions to the ground.

The park picnic of a dysfunctional Southern white family is actually a planned drug intervention for one teetering family member — only it seems everyone else could use the rehab from some mix of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Two sisters and a brother are reluctant to take part in the plan but for the mother’s insistence, and the third sister who they plot to help has to be subdued to hear their reasons.

The interactions are electric, with heated exchanges and plenty of four-letter words. When the lights eventually fade and come back up, the costumes and setting are the same, but it’s now an African American family.

Director Steve Broadnax has each player tilting to convey a larger-than-life character, and meeting the families makes one both smile and wince.

Zudhi Boueri opens the action as a delightfully jaded, white Southern redneck brother, with sour, uncaring sisters Julie Chereson and Katie Nixon and Natalie Griffith Robichaux as the ruse-plotting mother. Their expletive-laced lexicon quickly becomes routine.

The African American family delivers their own style of drama, with Eric Brian Robinson Jr. as the somewhat staid brother offset by mercurial sisters Mariah Claiborne and Johnique Mitchell with Stori Ayers as the mother.

After the action progresses again, several members of a film crew arrive to end the scene — is this reality or is it all staged drama?

Act Two flashes back to one year earlier. Here the rehabilitated interventionee, Barbara, white, poised and put together, meets the African American movie star who plans to play her in a new film, only to learn that the details of the crazed memoir penned during her drug rehab were concocted.

Jordan Cooper and Mikayla McKasy sizzle as the white and African American version of the alternately timid and abrasive Barbara. The interaction of the two in Act Two is riveting.

If O’Hara fairly skewers the family’s characters and actions, he equally roasts the world of Hollywood. The film star has her own secret and flaws, and has no problem proceeding with the memoire’s alternative truth to make big money.

Move the setting to Oscar night, and the false story portrayed on film wins best picture. What will happen when the real Barbara takes the microphone?

The set design by Parker Sweeney uses a picnic table, worn patches of grass, a large cooler and small public grill to create a simple, believable scene. Costumes by Emma Dickerson are colorful and frumpy for the picnic, but gala gorgeous for the awards event.

Language is as raw as it gets, from the “turn off your cell phones” pre-curtain announcement.

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If you go

What: Penn State Centre Stage’s “Barbecue”

Where: Pavilion Theatre, University Park

When: 7:30 p.m. today through Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $12.50 to $20, 863-0255

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