“Every day there are shadows, but every day there is light, too.”
These are the words of a six-year-old survivor of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting on Dec. 14, 2012 that claimed the lives of 20 children and six teachers.
These words, along with other verbatim interviews done with the townspeople of Newtown, Connecticut, were brought to life in the UW Oshkosh theatre department’s staged reading of Eric Ulloa’s new play “26 Pebbles” last weekend.
“26 Pebbles” had its first professional premiere last weekend as well after having its first staged production at UW-La Crosse last October.
Director Richard Kalinoski said Ulloa’s focus on the townspeople surrounding the event rather than the families directly impacted by the shooting was intentional.
“I think ‘26 Pebbles’ is useful, not so much from a philosophical point of view, but maybe as an effort to bring a little restoration of dignity to a community and civility after a horrific attack,” Kalinoski said. “I think the playwright’s intended purpose was a restoration of compassion, of caring and a restoration identity.”
UWO student Olivia Battaglia said the simple staging of the play, the actors sitting in an arc with their scripts in hand, no more than 15 feet from the audience, created an intimate space that made it easier to connect to the identities of people she’ll never know.
“This happened when I was in high school and I didn’t really hear a whole lot about it; I just heard there was a shooting,” Battaglia said. “So I got to learn more about it and what the town had to go through. It really helped me connect with those people on a personal level.”
Kalinoski said “26 Pebbles” finds a way to have an uplifting message despite the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding it.
“Ultimately, the play points out that the only thing you can cling to is the impulse to love,” Kalinoski said.
UWO student Allison Davis said that by showcasing the outpouring of love U.S. citizens sent to Newtown in the form of thousands of teddy bears emphasizes how, in spite of strong division in the country, people can come together to support one another.
“[The play shows] how compassionate people can be in times of tragedy,” Davis said.
Along with the message of hope and love, Kalinoski said “26 Pebbles” addresses several issues that face America such as gun control, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This play in particular is very much like a Greek chorus, and so the issues that arise in the community get an airing and get to have conversation,” Kalinoski said.
A moment in the play is devoted to discussing who was to blame for the shooter’s actions, and Battaglia said the diverse opinions presented in the play demonstrate America’s urgent need for more open discussions about mental illnesses and how they should be handled.
“I think it sheds a really good light on, not only the victims, but the aggressor,” Battaglia said. “It shows the process of healing and it creates a sense of community.”
Another issue presented was the escalating role of the media during tragedy.
Carole, the Human Resource Director of Newtown, summarized in a harsh outburst: “Horrible. Invasive. There was no escape and there was no time for us to grieve.”
With all of the hot-topic issues presented in “26 Pebbles,” Kalinoski added the play does not offer ways to resolve these issues, but raises awareness of the diverse reactions people have to tragedy and how those reactions have the power to bring people together.
“I don’t know that [the play], or any theatrical presentation, can point in the direction of solutions for someone’s erratic and strange behavior,” Kalinoski said. “But to some degree I think [‘26 Pebbles’] celebrates the better part of a community and of humanity.”
The theatre department’s next production is Neil Simon’s comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which will run March 2-5.