Pebbles to Take to Heart – Human Race Theatre’s 26 Pebbles Makes Ripples
Posted On June 28, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of 26 Pebbles: Human Race Theatre
Mass shootings—not just (gun) violence—is “as American as cherry pie,” H. Rap Brown observed in 1967. That is so true 50 years later, that a massacre—if not merely the gunning down of unarmed citizens by police—can happen in your town. Such shootings probably already have.
As such, do you want to spend an evening in the theatre facing up to it? You certainly do. Dayton’s Human Race Theatre invites you to see the world premiere of Eric Ulloa’s 26 Pebbles, placed in the middle of its 30th anniversary season and being performed through February 19th. Twenty-eight people died at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012: 20 students, six teachers, the mother of shooter, and Adam Lanza, the killer.
Maybe if the whole town talks about “it:” the specifics of the shootings, where they were, what they heard, who they knew, who they lost, their anger, their grief, what to do now, next, how to go on, it will help them, if not make sense of the tragedy, figure out some acceptance of the aftermath. Attend 26 Pebbles and walk into a town meeting. Take a name tag and a marker, put your name on your shirt, and sit down for an exploration, more than a discussion, as the ensemble cast of six, playing 24 characters, share their world before, during, and after that deadly day.
All the characters are real, if unnamed (uniformly strong performances by Christine Brunner, Gina Handy, Scott Hunt, Jennifer Joplin, Caitlin McWethy, Jason Podplesky), their words a result of over 60 interviews playwright Ulloa conducted in May 2013. Together, 24 townspeople share their thoughts, feelings, griefs, and hopes. Some of the characters result from interviews woven together. Others are represented as themselves: the rabbi (Hunt), the Episcopal priest (Podplesky), and the recently transplanted Australian couple (Brunner, great accent, and Podplesky). An accent, a yarmulke, the turned, white priest’s collar, eye glasses, a sweater, a scarf are all the costume changes needed for one character to morph into another.
The audience is eased into the performance, starting with getting to know you introductions, the cast seated in two rows on two levels of hard back chairs, three blackboards behind them. But normalcy is shattered with incessant ringing of cell phones, the listeners struggling to make sense of a massacre unfolding in their idyllic little town. The stage breaks apart too, the platform becoming four islands. The blackboards are split up and turned around, into screens where a wide variety of images will be shown, from the names and ages of the victims, to newspaper headlines to an excerpt of President Obama’s eulogy, to piles of teddy bears sent from around the world. (Scott Kimmins is scenic designer, John Rensel designed the lighting, Jay Brunner is the sound designer and composed the music).
The action is fast paced, the characters on the move, the audience learning of the shootings and their aftermath from a variety of the townspeople’s own words. All the words are from interviews, even though some are a combination of people’s stories, combined to “create dramatic structure from a real situation because life doesn’t have dramatic structure,” explained director Igor Goldin.
With the setting a town meeting, the cast is all about us, speaking to first row audience members, walking up the aisle, all of a sudden in the back row: “I felt compelled. I had to make a sign. I am Love. I am Newtown. So me and my daughter made a sign” and she held it up.
Another woman cast member recalled “I told my daughter, this is the center of the world now.”
That center isn’t whole: conflict occurs when a woman, crying in her car, crying since she started in a grocery store, gets out of her car to tell a group picketing a gun store and shooting gallery “Stop! You are perpetuating hate.”
It is impossible to share all the scenes or all the suffering and stages of grief cast members go through in the course of the play. The depth of it is the scene titled “Monsters” a sharing of children’s nightmares and trauma. The complexity of life for teens is highlighted by the sharing of memories of then student Adam Lanza, his back to the wall lockers, hugging them and sliding unseen along the hallway. A cast member, from a theatre seat, pipes up “my brother had schizophrenia for 5, 10 years,” and another says “This is no defense, but there is no difference between a man who is being chased with a machine gun and a man who thinks he is being chased with a machine gun.”
But there is an arc to the performance. First The Flood: a scene depicting the worldwide outpouring that filled rooms with mail and teddy bears (65,700), forcing townspeople to react to the world’s response. And finally, Spring (and the ringing of a school bell), as the processing continues, as crocuses pop out of the ground with the melting of snow and the rear screens fill with blue sky and white puffy clouds.
The actors push the island platforms back to one whole and the set once again becomes the town hall, but now the six chairs are in a circle, a teddy bear on each one. The arc swings up. Hope is not only possible but can be created by people who have gone through the deepest depths.
Earlier, one woman ha asked, “How can you process this?” Playwright, director, cast, and production crew show how one town comes to grips and moves toward the other side of tragedy in the course of 90 minutes.
Near the beginning one person mused: “26 pebbles. That’s what happened. Each one of those dropped in a pond. It just emanates out. Ripples. You know, this stuff spreads.”
26 Pebbles plays through the 19th at the Loft Theatre, 126 North. Main Street, Dayton 45402. For tickets, call (937) 228-3630 or click on https://my.ticketcenterstage.com/single/EventListing.aspx.