Shine On

Review of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Hartford Stage

A tragic tale centered on the bullying of an effervescent teen, James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a play with its heart in the right place. In a series of brief encounters with locals who knew Leonard, Chuck DeSantis, a detective called in to investigate a missing person by the boy’s guardian, pieces together both the unique contribution Leonard made to the small town in New Jersey where he lives, and, more vaguely, what exactly happened to him. The show is an entertaining feast of character studies by James Lecesne, who wrote the young adult novel the play is based on, adapted it as a play, and performs all the characters.

Close your eyes at one point and you will believe a teen-age girl, Phoebe, is onstage talking about her control-freak mom—Ellen, a no-nonsense woman who took Leonard in when he had nowhere else to go, and who runs, suitably enough, a beauty salon. Lecesne’s voice manipulation and mannerisms are wonderfully precise: there’s DeSantis’ Jersey charm, Ellen’s aggressive comments, and a host of vivid characterizations, from the long drag on an imaginary cigarette and the tobacco-ravaged voice of Marion, a client of Ellen’s who tried to counsel Leonard to be a little less flamboyant, to the imaginary binoculars in the hands of Gloria, widow of a former mob boss, who keeps her eye on the lake by her house and spots an important clue, to the natty brio of a Brit enduring the thankless task of teaching dance and drama to suburban brats, and who has some misgivings about the wings Leonard wants to wear as Ariel in an upcoming production of the Tempest.

 James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The upshot is that Leonard, with, for instance, his insistence that every woman needs to own a little black dress, did wonders for the style and panache of the town. His Converse platforms (sneakers enhanced by a stack of multi-colored flip-flops affixed to the soles) might be the kind of thing to get him in trouble with those who patrol the borders of conformity, but the shoes are also a badge of the kind of style Leonard exults in. As he told Marion: if he were to give in, the terrorists would win.

Quick projections, some animated, give us visuals of the story’s details—such as an example of those sneakers or a blurry photo of Leonard himself and the way to tie certain knots that are also clues—but most of the time this show is carried only by Lecesne’s way with a story and with his enactment of the people who knew and loved Leonard. That they are all “characters,” as in notably theatrical, plays into the detective plot that keeps the play moving forward. While not really a whodunit mystery, there is the nagging question of what happened to Leonard. The people who have something to say, for the most part, are not treated as suspects, but as fonts of information and of odd speculations, as in Gloria wondering what will happen if the Church does away with hell. One gem is Leonard’s insight that every woman continues to wear the hairdo from the high point of her life. Leonard advocates change.

And that’s one of the main themes of Lecesne’s show: change, as in trying to change the attitudes of adults and kids about the trans or gay or lesbian or “questioning” teens among us. The effort to be oneself shouldn’t be hemmed in by the threat of violence and ostracism. Leonard knows this, and the women around him get it, but the bullies that DeSantis interviews simply accept that someone like Leonard is asking for abuse, and they provide it, almost as a duty. That element of the teen years is a given, and DeSantis is up-front in his realization that someone like Leonard couldn’t even have existed in the time of the detective’s own childhood. In those days, he says quite realistically, fathers were the bullies who beat any kind of gender-exploration out of their kids.

 James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Despite the sensitivity of such issues, Lecesne’s play doesn’t get heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. The play’s effect relies on a clever theatrical device: the absence of Leonard speaks for what is missing without him there. The contribution of difference—often very flamboyantly conceived—to the fabric of society is what we ask from our exceptional and gifted individuals, while also knowing what a struggle their talents and self-conceptions will be faced with in our less than enlightened culture. The play’s title comes from the astronomical concept of a star’s “absolute brightness” (the measurable intensity of a star’s radiance, regardless of where viewed from) and Lecesne’s characters, while not privy to that idea, attest, from their different perspectives, to Leonard’s brightness. They can only measure the effects of that light, its presence and absence.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey makes its points deftly, with a capable storyteller’s grasp of how personality, vividly rendered, lights up the stage and illuminates some of the dark places in our society.


The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Written & performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale

Scenic Design: Jo Winiarksi; Lighting Design: Matt Richards; Sound Design: Christian Frederickson; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Original Music: Duncan Sheik; Original Animation & Photography: Matthew Sandager; Clothing: Paul Marlow; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Hartford Stage
March 29-April 23, 2017