Human Race has shown a commitment to World Premieres of plays; 26 PEBBLES is the latest in their history of showcasing new works. This particular piece, a conglomeration of interviews with people who lived through the Sandy Hook shooting in Newton, CT is chock full of humanity, hope, and heart.
When I told my co-workers I was going to see a play about Sandy Hook, they all said “Why would you want to see that?” Their question was a good one; why would anyone want to escape to the theatre to hear tragedy of such magnitude? But I knew there would be light admit the darkness. And I was right.
Featuring the actual words of the people he interviewed, Eric Ulloa has written a mostly compelling play. Starting as a town meeting where the actors engage the audience by handing out name tags, some more in character than others, the show begins innocuously enough. And just like I imagine it happened that day, all of a sudden there is darkness and fear as we begin to relive the immediate (and not so immediate) aftermath of the shootings that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. Twenty children were killed that day, along with six adults. Eight, if you count the shooter and his mother, whom he killed prior to the massacre at the school.
The play tackles some big ideas, like gun control, schizophrenia, religion, and the way the media covers events like this one. But because he relies solely on actual words from people he interviewed, the script can only dig so deep. It’s often a surface level discussion, when fleshing out more of these themes would give the script more teeth.
The performances are very good, featuring an all-star cast of some Human Race favorites and a couple of new faces. Each actor plays multiple parts, using accessories and hair styles to differentiate between them. I’d like to know more about these people and the audience would benefit from a deeper connection to them, too. As it stands, there’s not much investment in them as much as we feel their stories through the professional and often-moving performances.
The ensemble features resident artists Scott Hunt, Jennifer Joplin, and Christine Brunner as well as Gina Handy, Jason Podplesky, and Caitlin McWethy. The lighting design by John Rensel helps us focus our attention in the right places while Scott J. Kimmins set design takes us from place to place with a minimal quality that keeps our attention on the actors. Jay Brunner’s sound design and musical compositions are powerful and moving. Jessica Pitcairn’s costumes work, allowing the actors to transform subtly in and out of their various characters without even needing to leave the stage.
Director Igor Golden has made some specific choices that mostly work well. By having the actors add and subtract from their wardrobe or hair style in full view of audience and often mid-sentence, it’s easy to understand what’s happening. He uses the stage and some of the area behind the audience, a tactic often used in The Loft, but does so with restraint. And the overall tone of the piece, as sad and horrifying as the subject matter is, has an air of hope. There’s a sense of community; the playwright, director, and actors all work together to tell us the story of Newtown, a place that would rather not be defined by their tragedy but by the goodness of their community.
I think there’s more story here, more to tell. As it is, though, it’s a whole-hearted celebration of our humanity and a much more uplifting night at the theatre than one might presume.
26 PEBBLES plays at the Human Race Theatre Company in The Loft in Downtown Dayton through February 19th. Tickets and more information can be found here.