StageSceneLA: Theatre 40 at its most risk-taking and cutting-edge

Playwright Eric Ulloa puts a personal face on the fourth-deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history and the deadliest ever at a high school or grade school in his riveting, touching, inspiring 26 Pebbles, Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 at its most risk-taking and cutting-edge.

On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Aaron Lanza of Newtown, Connecticut, murdered his 51-year-old mother, then entered Sandy Hill Elementary School and shot to death 20 first-graders, six adult staff members, and himself.

Taken directly from interviews conducted amongst the 27,000 residents of the idyllic Connecticut town, 26 Pebbles first introduces us to Newtown geography and landmarks through the eyes (and map-drawing skills) of Jenn (Jennifer Lee Laks), married to Michael (Joe Lorenzo) and mother of a six-year-old; lifelong resident Sally (Jean Kauffman) and her parents Carole (Roslyn Cohn) and Bill (Lorenzo); Australian Georgia (Michele Schultz) and her American husband Darren (Lorenzo), who’ve relocated to the States with their two boys to be as close to his native Ohio as the ocean-loving Aussie will allow; hippie-dippie “spiritual healer” Jeriann (Kauffman) and “angel reader” Starr (Cohn); construction worker Mike (George Villas); town religious leaders Rabbi Shaul (Villas) and Catholic priest Father Weiss (Lorenzo); artsy art teacher Joe (Villas); and another half-dozen or so more.

Great schools, low crime, flag-flying Fourth Of Julys, epic Main Street Halloween celebrations, and annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremonies, all of these made Newtown the ideal spot to settle down and raise a family the all-American way, that is until gunshots sounded, 911 calls were made, and parents and children found themselves confronting the unthinkable.

Eschewing sensationalism in favor of subtlety, 26 Pebbles takes on edge-of-your-seat immediacy as parents await word of who has survived and who has not, the clergy does its best to offer solace, and townspeople are forced to ask themselves if those being mourned should also include the shooter and a mother who might in some way have contributed to her son’s indescribable act of terror.

Making 26 Pebbles all the more remarkable is that it marks Broadway musical theater triple-threat Ulloa’s accomplished play-writing debut.

Theatre 40 favorite Jules Aaron directs 26 Pebbles to maximum visual effect on Jeff G. Rack’s ingenious set, designed to suggest a first-grade classroom as Gabrieal Griego’s spectacular projection design gives the production a you-are-there quality enhanced by Brandon Baruch’s dramatic lighting, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s pulse-pounding original music and sound design, and costume designer Michèle Young’s cleverly designed, character-distinguishing accessories.

Despite some distracting age-blind casting that asks audiences to buy a couple of grandparent-age stage vets as young mothers, Aaron’s crackerjack ensemble prove more than up to 26 Pebbles’ performance challenges and demands.

Laks’s Jenn makes for a deeply-felt town guide, Lorenzo’s Father Weiss stands out from his three working-class dads, Kauffman and Cohn make Jeriann and Starr a matched pair of spacey new-age hoots, and Shultz neatly contrasts Georgia’s Australian brand of butch with American factory worker Kat’s.

Best of all is Villas, who never leaves a moment of doubt whether we are seeing Newtown’s soft-spoken Rabbi, blue-collar Mike, straight-shooting City Hall worker Chris, or presumably not-so-straight Joe.

26 Pebbles is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner is assistant stage manager. Susan Mermet is assistant director.

Like last year’s Sequence and Late Company, 26 Pebbles proves that even one of L.A.’s oldest membership theater companies (with a post-retirement-age subscriber base to match) can remain in the forefront of edgy, audience-challenging theater. Though no one play can provide an answer to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our country, Theatre 40’s provocative, perceptive 26 Pebbles continues the conversation to powerful, thought-provoking effect.