IHS play shines light on Sandy Hook

"How do you ever process something like that?" Iola High School drama students step into roles at Newtown, Conn., before and after a school shooting that killed 20 first graders and six school staff members. The play, "26 Pebbles" will be performed tonight and Friday at 7 at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

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April 7, 2022 - 10:29 AM

Iola High School drama student Austin Morris plays a rabbi affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. IHS students perform “26 Pebbles” tonight at 7 at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Ten years ago, the world was horrified by the Sandy Hook massacre. 

A shooting at an elementary school on Dec. 14, 2012, killed 20 first-graders and six school employees in Newtown, Conn. The shooter, Adam Lanza, had already killed his mother and, after the murderous spree, turned the gun on himself. 

Ten years ago, Iola High School’s drama students were around the same age as those students at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

This week, they step into the roles of 19 Newtown residents for the performance of “26 Pebbles,” a dramatic play that tells the story of residents whose lives were forever changed. The play will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

It’s a very different type of high school play.

It’s a sort of documentary about a town forever changed by tragedy, the way pebbles dropped in a pond ripple across the water.

Director Richard Spencer and drama teacher Regina Chriestenson wanted to challenge IHS students, to force them to reach into a deeper place and experience a wide variety of emotions.

Five students take the stage, each portraying a variety of characters. The differences in the characters require subtle changes in clothes, accent, speech patterns and even the way they move.

The cast of “26 Pebbles” includes, from left, Bumble Ard, Hannah Andersen, Max Andersen, Austin Morris and Macie Hoag.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

It’s impossible to single out any one performance, as each actor displays a stunning breadth and depth of skill. Yet, each actor carries a sort of signature style through all of their roles.

Macie Hoag plumbs deep emotional depths with compassion and empathy.

Austin Morris moves with an impassioned activism.

Bumble Ard offers an optimistic innocence even in the face of disillusion and pain.

Hannah Andersen shows a quiet strength through difficult times.

Max Andersen is the “everyman” struggling through unimaginable tragedy.

Students Em Ator and Gabe Kilby do not speak, but take the stage to write messages on a white board as they guide viewers through the story.

Bumble Ard stages a silent protest after a horde of media attention descends on the town.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

PLAYWRIGHT Eric Ulloa traveled to Newtown six months after the tragedy. He gained the trust of local residents and interviewed 60 people over the course of three weeks.

He tells of a community shaken by the worst kind of tragedy, all while under a national spotlight, and how they came together in the weeks and months that followed. 

The play uses their words.

It starts with residents describing their town before the shooting. They lived very normal lives, and no one outside of their community paid much attention to what happened there.

Then comes the sound of glass shattering, and phones ringing. Word spreads. It’s a school shooting.

Everyone assumes it must have been at the high school, and they’re horrified to learn the target instead was an elementary school. They’re frantic and confused.

Panicked parents talk of finding their child at the fire station, where teachers and students gathered in the immediate aftermath. Other families waited for children who never came out.

Max Andersen, Bumble Ard and Hannah Andersen play a family in Newtown before the tragic shooting. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

A media frenzy followed, while residents struggled to process what happened.

“There was no time to grieve,” Hannah Andersen’s character said, describing the media. “They want to see you sobbing. They want to see you in pain.”

“Please, just let us mourn,” Max Andersen’s character pleaded.

They talk about the shooter, raising questions about faith, mental illness and gun safety.

Was Lanza a monster? Was he evil? Or was he mentally ill? Was he solely responsible? Did his parents — the guns he used were legally purchased by his mother — deserve some of the blame? 

The residents struggle with those issues as they try to cope with feelings of anger, sadness and pain.

Bumble Ard, Macie Hoag and Hannah Andersen in 26 Pebbles.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Mothers became “accidental activists” focused on gun reform.

Organizations were set up to collect the thousands and letters and teddy bears sent to the community from across the world.

Then came the spring. The world was blooming and coming back to life. The community needed to rebuild and move past the horror.

Parents told of traumatized children as they returned to school, 6-year-olds suffering from PTSD. 

“How do you ever process something like this?” Macie Hoag’s character asks.

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