“26 Pebbles” transports audience members back in time to the horror and grief one town endured after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012.
The production portrays how the town of Newtown, Connecticut, experienced and reacted to the tragedy that occurred on Dec. 14, 2012, when a man opened fire at the school, killing 20 small children and six staff members in the town.
The play, written by the playwright Eric Ulloa, was directed by College of Fine Arts senior Sarah Whelan and performed as part of the Quarter Zero Festival. The festival is a collection of student-directed plays rehearsed throughout the summer and performed at the beginning of the school year run from Sept. 1–3.
Whelan said that she was first introduced to the play in the summer of 2016 when Ulloa came into a licensing meeting at her internship.
“How he went about interviewing the community members really moved me,” she said. “I am also personally very passionate about gun reform, … but something Eric emphasized heavily about the piece was that it was not and could not be a piece of political propaganda. In the end, I agreed, because doing so cheapens what the play is actually about.”
“26 Pebbles” was performed Saturday night at CFA’s School of Theatre in front of a near-capacity crowd. The play opens on a stark, all-black stage with six chairs holding various apparel.
Although the ensemble cast is small, with only six actors, each takes on a variety of roles, slipping in and out of characters by changing between sweaters, shawls and jackets. The entire story is told from the perspective of the Newtown residents.
Saskia Martinez, a CFA junior and the play’s scenic designer, grew up very close to Sandy Hook.
“What was most jarring about it was how similar Newtown is to Mansfield,” Martinez said. “Reading the show, I was like, ‘Yes, we also have an ice cream place that gets its milk next door. We also have a big parade in September. We also are well known for having a great public school system.’”
Martinez said her school rebuilt the entryway and added a second set of doors. Visitors can no longer enter the school during the day anymore.
“26 Pebbles” begins with a single actor talking about what life was like in Newtown before the murders. Gradually, all the actors join in as townspeople recall Newtown as a bucolic, all-American town. They describe a sheltered and close community with deep and long-standing relationships across generational and religious lines.
The actors use chalk on the walls and floor to draw a map as they narrate a picture of a wonderful, small town, the ideal place to raise children. The characters who tell the story include the Newtown parents, the first responders and the local clergy.
The play moves along with the help of audio clips cleverly woven throughout, including snippets of speeches by former President Barack Obama and National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre. The cast emotionally debates whether the tragedy involved 26 victims — the children and teachers — or 28 victims, including the shooter and his mother, who he shot prior to the mass shooting.
A consensus emerges that all were victims, rejecting the assertion that this tragedy was the consequence of evil.
“26 Pebbles,” named after the ripple effect the lives lost had on victims’ loved ones and strangers alike, evoked unsettling emotions in the audience. The actors’ portrayals instilled horror and sadness but also empathy for the gunman and even laughter as the townspeople discuss the hundreds of thousands of teddy bears that people from all over the world sent to Newtown.
“At the end, the actors wash away the chalk writing except for the base town map as a gesture to the town continuing on,” Whelan said. “As Rabbi Praver says, ‘Newtown doesn’t want to be remembered as the town of the tragedy. We want to be remembered as the bridge to a new and kinder world.’”
Madeleine Bedenko, a CFA freshman who attended the festival, wrote in a Facebook message that watching the student-directed play ultimately made her proud to study at Boston University.
“Seeing ‘26 Pebbles’ reminded me how powerful the theatre can be—how [powerful] art can be—in making society realize its defaults,” Bedenko wrote.