The tragic December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults, is examined with relatable earnestness and resilience in Eric Ulloa’s touching if uneven new play “26 Pebbles,” currently receiving its professional premiere from the Human Race Theatre Company.
Six months after the incident, Ulloa, a New York actor and playwright recently featured in the entertaining new Gloria and Emilio Estefan bio- musical “On Your Feet!,” traveled to Newtown for answers. Angry and frustrated, he sought solace in discovering how the quaint community was affected by such a heinous act. He held over 60 interviews with various residents which became the catalyst for the monologue-heavy, one-act play.
Ulloa has said “26 Pebbles” can be viewed as a contemporary offshoot of Thornton Wilder’s classic drama “Our Town,” but I find its theatrical DNA akin to Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s Matthew Shepard-inspired, interview-driven drama “The Laramie Project.” In fact, his play could use more of the realistic bite and edge which gives “Laramie” its palpable sting. I understand his desire to keep the structure Americana-infused with the folksy charm of Grover’s Corners, but it’s not an absolutely engaging decision. In fact, the opening sequence, set in a town hall, is a cutesy introduction that doesn’t go anywhere. Practically 15 minutes is spent convincing the audience why Newtown is a fantastic and welcoming place to live (even a meteor shower is praised) when five minutes or less would have sufficed. Thankfully, the action quickly kicks into gear (and scenic designer Scott J. Kimmins’ wonderfully efficient set terrifically disconnects) when reflections of the shooting occurs. The sea of frantic responses, the disbelief of New England utopia coming under siege, is very invigorating, providing some of director Igor Goldin’s strongest moments of stagecraft.
Now I understand there might be reticence in Ulloa dwelling on 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza, but this play finds its footing in its insightful debate of what went wrong inside Lanza’s home and inside his psyche. Everyone knows blame makes for great drama. After all, we wouldn’t feel the same about the Wingfields or the Tyrones or the Maxsons without it. So, it’s not surprising Lanza’s mental illness, detachment, isolationism, his upbringing as a child of divorce, the laundry list of weapons in his possession, and even his good qualities provide compelling fodder. Also, when one woman suggests it takes a village to raise a child, it intriguingly brings into question Newtown bearing responsibility for Lanza’s behavior. It is a thought-provoking nugget gently raising the stakes for the play. It’s perfectly fine to know Newtown received over 63,700 teddy bears, but darker, uncomfortable shades shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the pursuit of the impactful.
Goldin’s excellently chameleonic sextet, nicely dressed in upper-middle class everyday fashion courtesy of costumer Jessica Pitcairn, weaves through multiple roles with fluidity and magnetism. Christine Brunner is warmly winning as an Australian adjusting to life in America (whenever the Oscar-nominated film “Lion” is adapted for the stage I hope she receives a call to play the Nicole Kidman role). A very chipper Caitlin McWethy is an appealing fit in her primary narrative role recalling the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” Scott Hunt, who recently gave one of the finest performances of his career as Molina in Columbus’ Short North Stage’s central Ohio premiere of “Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical,” is very endearing as a concerned rabbi wishing he could have mentored Lanza. Jason Podplesky also showcases genuine sensibility in a fatherly capacity. Jennifer Joplin and Gina Handy are delightfully paired as entrepreneurs Jerian and Starr who provide healing and angel readings. John Rensel’s expert lighting design and Jay Brunner’s evocative music and gripping sound design are noteworthy.
Ulloa states “26 Pebbles” is not about the victims, but perhaps it should be. As issues of gun violence continue to swell, especially in this divisive age of President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it’s time for a statement to be made. Placing a litany of inspirational words on a chalkboard is a feel-good solution, but there are other steps worth exploring. His well-meaning play, conceived during Obama era optimism, concludes lovey-dovey, but has the potential to make a courageous and riveting ripple throughout the nation if given a deeper look at current anxieties.
“26 Pebbles” continues through Feb. 19 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The production is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $20-$40. There are discounts for select side-area seats available for $12 and $25 for all performances. For group sales, contact Betty Gould at (937) 461-8295 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. In addition, there will be a post-show talk-back with a spokesperson from Sandy Hook Promise following the Sunday, Feb. 12 performance