Uncomfortable but compelling theater on Mt. Airy stage

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by Hugh Hunter

The massacre of children is not comfortable stage material, but directors Scott R. Grumling and T. Patrick Ryan are undaunted. Their production of “26 Pebbles” by Eric Ulloa, now running at Allens Lane Theater, is finely energetic political theater.

Twenty-six innocents were slaughtered at the Sandy Hook Grammar School on Dec 12, 2012 (20 children aged 6-7 and six adults). Set Designer Robert Bingaman flanks the stage with blackboards and desks to send the audience back to school to take a lesson.

Beginning with the numbing events of early winter, we track the journey of citizens in Newtown, Connecticut. They flail about, desperately seeking peace. Finally, in late spring, they rise up to wipe the slate clean and chalk hopeful words onto those blackboards.

At first, chirpy people introduce us to the nice points of their cozy town — its library, proud flagpole and homegrown creamery. They are a diverse mix. Hip, New Age spiritual types mix easily with a minister and rabbi. All gather downtown for a tree lighting ceremony and choral singing.

Then the sound of shattered glass and spluttering lights destroys the halcyon scene (sound, Scott R. Grumling, lights, Rachel Cline). The minister is dumbfounded, but the rabbi is more assertive. He argues the massacre was not an act of God but of men using free will (shades of Augustine’s argument vis-a-vis the existence of evil). Then someone shouts out, “The killer was mentally ill. What does free will have to do with it?”

There is no easy solace, and the middle of this one-act, 90-minute play shows the collision of ripples these 26 pebbles make. The town comes unglued. Some are angry about the media invasion, others favorably impressed. Some gather at a gun shop to shout, “Get out, get out;” others see this very behavior as a hate act. Some are angry at the killer’s family; others angry no one had intervened to help the killer, a troubled kid known to be “weird.”

But the townsfolk come together in the end. They seize the mountain of teddy bears the nation dumped on them and send them to suffering people in other parts of the world. They come to see, for the first time, their bond with the families of children murdered on the streets of Chicago.

There are six actors in ‘Pebbles’: Connie Giordano, Brian Rock, Doug Cashell, Marissa Wolf, Zarah Rautell and Susan Mattson. As if to underscore the leveling and shattering effect of the massacre, each actor plays multiple citizen roles.

And to underscore Newtown’s enlightenment, the ground floor gallery at Allens Lane hosts a “Souls Shot” exhibit. Under director/curator Laura Madeleine, the show unites local artists with victims of violence in Philadelphia by doing portraits of their slain children.

Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “26 Pebbles” will run through Mar 17. Tickets are now available at 215-248-0546.

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