Arts & Culture

'26 Pebbles' at Giving Tree Theater explores ripple effects of Sandy Hook murders

Actors in play opening in Marion take on powerful real issues

Dawn Stephens in a rehearsal Tuesday portrays Yolie Moreno, who held a sign in silent vigil at the entrance to Newtown,
Dawn Stephens in a rehearsal Tuesday portrays Yolie Moreno, who held a sign in silent vigil at the entrance to Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in the upcoming play “26 Pebbles” at Giving Tree Theater in Marion. The play, which opens Friday. focuses on the effects of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting on Newtown and beyond. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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MARION — The way Newtown, Conn., became a new town on Dec. 14, 2012, is the stuff of nightmares.

Nightmares that actor Theresa Alt, 45, of Marion, is hoping to avoid as she helps gives voice to the residents left to sort through the sorrow scattered all around when a lone gunman opened fire that day in Sandy Hook Elementary, killing six adult staff members and 20 children ages 6 and 7. Two adults survived their wounds. The gunman killed himself and his mother.

Alt is among the nine cast members performing multiple roles in the docudrama “26 Pebbles,” opening Friday and continuing through March 22 at Giving Tree Theater in Marion.

Each life lost created a ripple effect that spread not only through the community, but throughout the world.

Playwright Eric Ulloa, an actor based in New York City, couldn’t shake the horror that shattered the innocence of the victims, the town and its people. So six months later, he traveled to Newtown hoping that during a week’s stay, maybe someone would talk to him about how the residents are picking up the pieces and moving forward. One interview, conducted on a bench outside the town’s library, spiraled into more than 60 interviews over multiple trips.

Stricken by the quaintness of a town that reminded him of the fictional Grover’s Corners, he decided to create an “Our Town” for a changed world.

“‘26 Pebbles’ is not a play about the death of twenty young children and six adults,” he wrote in the play’s foreword. “Those are just the circumstances. ‘26 Pebbles’ is a story of hope and of family and of community. It is a story of the human condition.”

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Still, tissue boxes have been placed throughout the couches, chairs and cabaret tables that make up Giving Tree Theater’s cozy seating style. Audience members would be well-advised to bring their own tissues, too, because the stories will squeeze your heart.

Alt, a physical therapist by day, has broken from her tradition of reviewing her lines one more time each night before going to sleep.

“I have not done that with this show because I don’t want that to be the last thing that I think about,” she said.

Regardless of the emotional difficulty of the play’s topic, its documentary aspect reeled her in.

“As an actor, getting to portray something that a real person actually went through is just a really powerful experience for me,” she said. She also “felt like the focus of the story was not as much on the tragic event itself, but on what happens after — how people recover, where they find that hope — which gave it a little bit more of a positive spin than you might expect from a play about a mass school shooting.”

Caleb Haselhuhn, 27, of Anamosa, is playing several of the male voices in the show. In real life, he’s an instrumental music teacher and band director at Anamosa High School, and he’s been through active-shooter training.

But the reality portrayed in the play makes him feel “more protective” of his students.

“I want to hold them a little closer and take good care of them,” he said.

Director Jamie Henley of Robins, co-owner of Giving Tree Theater and chief operating officer of the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids, was looking for a show to direct when his wife, Andrea, a language arts teacher at Regis Middle School in Cedar Rapids, showed him this script.

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“She shared it with me ... and I said, ‘that’s the one I want to do,’” he said. “Like Theresa, I like telling those real stories. I think it’s really powerful, and I also want to tell a story that doesn’t get told very often.

“Then I read the script and it’s just very well written. It does a great job of just telling the story. I shared with the actors that I don’t want this to be angry. We don’t want it to be political. We just want to tell their story, and the script allows us to do that in a really, really real way,” Henley said.

“It would be so easy for this type of a script to have an agenda,” Alt added, “and the script does not.”

Six of the cast members are educators, which Henley said adds depth to the back story of this production.

“These are people who have that fear or live this every day,” he said.

Plays like this also can help viewers process horrific events.

“Theatrical arts can do a couple of things,” said Dr. Chris Okiishi of Iowa City, a psychiatrist who is entrenched in the Corridor theater scene. “Certainly, they can be helpful in processing bad things, because in order to be presented on a stage, the chaos of the situation has to be contained into a finite-length presentation. ...

“But I also am not sure theater is always required to help us process things. Sometimes it’s the opposite — to remind us of areas of our society or events that we thought we understood, that there are nuances to and problems with, that had not occurred before. So maybe we need to be unsettled or reminded or encouraged to think about or to face some unpleasant or ugly parts of society. And theater allows us a physically safe way to do that.”

Like with “The Agitators,” which Okiishi recently directed in Iowa City, he said audiences can learn from the history explored onstage: lessons from that show’s often-messy friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass at a time of national unrest, and from the history presented in “26 Pebbles.”

“The past is important if we can apply it to the present and the future,” he said. “And I don’t think our country’s reconciliation with gun violence is any closer to a meaningful solution now than it was eight years ago.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you Go

• What: “26 Pebbles”

• Where: Giving Tree Theater, 752 10th St., Marion

• When: Friday to March 22; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

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• Tickets: $27, (319) 536-0257 or Givingtreetheater.com/products/26-pebbles

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