Total Theater: 26 Pebbles actors “pull out all the stops”

Total Rating: ****

The horror and heartbreak of the 2013 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School are dramatized skillfully and powerfully in 26 Pebbles. The play, written by Eric Ulloa and directed by Jules Aaron, has transferred to Theater 40 after premiering at The Human Race Theater Company. Ulloa based his play on the interviews and research that he conducted in Sandy Hook.

Thus the voices we hear during the course of 26 Pebbles are the voices of those who were personally affected by the massacre: children, parents, teachers, bystanders, religious leaders, politicians. Six actors play all of those roles in convincing fashion, switching from one impersonation to another with lightning speed and assurance. And thanks to Aaron’s masterful direction, they move round the stage with choreographed precision and timing, weaving in and out of the multi-colored blocks that comprise the play’s classroom-like setting (designed by Jeff G. Rack).

The first scenes in 26 Pebbles are expository: we learn something of the history of Newtown and its Sandy Hook, CT. suburb. Idyllic, affluent and crime-free, it was the last place you’d ever expect a massacre to occur. But, as one parent says, evil exists everywhere and it raised its head in Sandy Hook, destroying the illusion of her safe little world.

The early scenes also introduce us to some of the key characters: a community leader, some parents, a priest and a rabbi, to name a few. They praise Newtown for its peace and beauty, its kind, caring inhabitants, only to be violently shocked out of their complacency when the shooting occurs. The horror and agony are conveyed convincingly by the actors, who pull out all the stops for some long, bloody, terrifying moments as news of the slaughter of 24 first-graders and two teachers hits home.

Then comes the aftermath: parents and children struggling with their grief and pain, the town trying to cope with a media onslaught. Press from all over the world piles into Newtown, choking its streets, lawns and stores, intruding on everyone’s privacy and dignity.

Next thoughts turned to the dead young shooter. Why did he kill innocent children like that? How and where did he get all those weapons? The need to understand his despicable behavior gripped everyone, made them turn to their clergy for answers—which were understandably not forthcoming, for who can truly understand why some people become evil?

Most of 26 Pebbles, though, deals with Newtown’s attempt to heal itself and become a thriving community again. As Aaron said in a program note, “Newtown doesn’t want to be remembered as the town of tragedy. It wants to be remembered as the bridge to a new and kinder world.”

This is not a play for the faint-hearted. But those who watch it (sometimes through tear-filled eyes) will be rewarded by a renewed faith in the essential goodness and decency of the human race.