theatre

Human Race Theatre premieres a story of recovery and hope

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: (clockwise from top left) Jason Podplesky, Gina Handy, Caitlin McWethy, Scott Hunt, Christine Brunner, and Jennifer Joplin star in ‘26 Pebbles’ Feb. 2-Feb 18; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

During 2012 and later, we sent them 63,700 teddy bears.

More than 900,000 of us wrote to them.

Now comes a play about the people of Newtown, Connecticut, in their own words, six months after the cameras went dark and the press lost interest and neighbors were finally left to mourn the 20 children and six teachers who were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Eric Ulloa became obsessed in 2013, driven to find out and understand what happened once there was time to feel and think.

He decided to craft the material he’d gathered into a play, pleased he’d been able to slowly win the trust of some townspeople and to find there was a surprising community process of grieving and change occurring.

Because Ulloa knew Artistic Producer Kevin Moore and had worked at the Human Race, he brought his script to Dayton.

The depth of positive thinking Ulloa found and and has captured in the script is stunning. That sense of community, the core of the play, is most convincing.

Ulloa and Director Igor Goldin have come together for the first time for the first professional performance of “26 Pebbles.” They auditioned actors locally and in New York, but after local callbacks, they realized they had an incredible local cast—so why not have members of a community perform in a play about just that, community.*

And so was born the world premiere production of “26 Pebbles,” a conversation, not a documentary.
Six actors play multiple parts in a play that puts the audience into the discussion. It’s somewhat like Grover’s Corners in “Our Town.” Ulloa was a bit surprised when he realized the enormity of that thought.

One of the HRTC, Christine Brunner, mom of a similarly aged child, says, “Playing real people was hard until Igor helped us understand the work now becomes fiction, and we’re not imitating living people; we’re acting each character, as in any play.”

The writer had five questions he asked each person who talked to him. Answers, of course, while varied, were surprisingly similar.

In a sit-down interview with Dayton City Paper, the playwright and the director discussed the evolution of the work and the answers to the questions posed to Newtowners:

When asked to describe the events of that fateful day, one responds with, “How do you reconcile the unthinkable or have time to mourn?”

Ulloa asked, “What do you like about your town?” To which some residents respond, “Newtown is a perfect place to raise children safely. It’s Norman Rockwell pretty, steeple and all. We’re comfortable here.”

When asked if Sandy Hook has shaken their faith in God, some share, “But we have a need for God, if even to question. We are humbled, feel need to discuss to look inside, be philosophical.”

And the shooter, Adam Lanza… What were their thoughts on him? Ulloa refers to the residents’ display of “humanity, no matter their differences in stated religion, conventional, or new age, or otherwise.”

In the final prompt, he asks them to, in a word, describe Newtown.

After Goldin and Ulloa expressed enthusiasm to the point of turning pink throughout the interview, they declined to share the single-word descriptions by the Newtowners, dangling a tease, but not sensationalizing, instead focusing on hope—highlighting the sense of heart and connection and community.

The six actors each play several different citizens. They simply gesture to indicate they’ve changed characters. The actors are Christine Brunner, Scott Hunt, Jennifer Joplin, Caitlin McWethy, Jason Podplesky, and Gina Handy.

Of course, it takes a creative, clever production staff to mount the first professional production of an original play.

Scott Kimmins, a long-time member of the company, can create and build the most unlikely scenic elements and has been responsible for 18 sets at the HRTC over the years. The current set is beguilingly simple, just chairs in a town hall—providing flexibility and perhaps some unexpected scenes. There are projection panels behind them.

No scenes of the violence are shown.

Creative people often manage to get themselves into challenging situations. But sound designer Jay Brunner goes for reality: for this show, if glass is broken, he finds real breaking glass to record. No reports yet of problems. Brunner also has written original music for the show, featuring a special acoustic guitar—that may be the easiest part for this production.

Jessica Pitcairn planned costumes. Not all are full changes because the actors don’t leave the stage as they assume different roles. She says the sense of the townspeople is essentially preppy, casual, and comfortable, in the current style of 2012-13.

To differentiate the characters, the actors use props, devised by the ever-clever Heather Powell. Those have to be hidden, small, and easily managed by actors on stage.

Lexi Muller is the stage manager with Jacquelyn Duncan as production assistant. John Rensel is the light designer.

Ulloa has come away forever impressed by the strength he sees within all of us—the kindness, the connections, the depth of humanity, the hope—nearly beyond belief.

Some may imagine a people reacting to tragedy with teddy bears someday finding the strength to deal hopefully with mental health support and logical weapon management.

This play will help us understand one of our major possible strengths in life.

We can learn and hope and allow ourselves to change and remember the forever ripple effect of 26 pebbles.

‘26 Pebbles’ takes the stage Thursday, Feb. 2, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Human Race Theatre, 126 N. Main St in downtown Dayton. Opening night show starts at 8 p.m. For tickets, show times, or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit HumanRaceTheatre.org. 

*Editor’s note: The online version of this article has been edited here to clarify a statement made by Eric Ulloa about the actor selection.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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