One-person, one-act performances have their challenges, including keeping an audience consistently engaged in what is essentially a running monologue.
One-person shows in which the main character is playing multiple roles can be equally challenging when it comes to the actor’s ability to maintain clear delineation between the various characters, and make them real and multi-dimensional people we care about.
On all counts, James Lecesne succeeds in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Lecesne wrote and performs in the witty and moving production directed by Tony Speciale that’s making its second stop at Hartford Stage before continuing on a national tour.
Lecesne is no newcomer to Hartford Stage. He has appeared in the theater’s productions of Motherhood Out Loud, I Am My Own Wife, and The Mystery of Irma Vep. In addition to being a playwright and actor, Lecesne is also an activist and author. He based this new play on his young adult novel, The Absolute Brightness, published in 2008. It has a clear message about bullying and homophobia, but Lecesne delivers it without hitting the audience over the head or judging any of his fallible, quirky characters harshly.
The play is a mix of murder mystery and modern day Our Town set in a small New Jersey town, in which the residents and shopkeepers all turn out for 14 year-old Leonard Pelkey’s funeral and reflect back on the unique brightness of the young teen after he’s gone, in an attempt to make sense of his death. Gay and unapologetic, caring and curious, Pelkey as a character in the play emerges through other people’s eyes—he never appears onstage.
The story is told primarily from the point of view of Chuck DeSantis, a small town detective investigating Pelkey’s mysterious disappearance.
DeSantis is a tough, rough-around-the-edges cop, who has had to deliver bad news to relatives of murder victims too many times. But Pelkey’s death affects him on a level he hasn’t experienced before.
Lecesne brilliantly builds the other characters slowly and deliberately, establishing each one before moving on to the next, so that when he switches roles (without any costume changes or even accessories), we have no doubt who is speaking.
Donned in a plain, navy blue, button-down shirt and olive green trousers, with the seemingly slightest and yet very significant shifts in facial expression, body language, and vocal intonation, Lecesne is thoroughly believable as the aging beauty queen-like owner of “Hair Today” salon with all her hard and soft edges, and her 16 year-old daughter, an insecure yet thoughtful teenager, who learns a lot about acceptance and compassion when Pelkey comes to live with them.
Characters continue to be brought into the mix, including an elderly German watchmaker, a socially impaired teenage video gamer, and the widow of a mafia mobster, who tells us she expected her husband to die by gunshot over a bowl of spaghetti, but instead he succumbed to a “normal” slow, painful cancer death.
These are the little nuggets of dialogue that Lecesne plants throughout the play that tell us volumes about his cast of characters.
Jo Winiarski’s scenic design is basic and unchanging, so as not to distract from the ever-changing parade of people appearing on stage. Set in the police station—a chair, a stool, and a table scattered with articles of evidence in Pelkey’s case—are all that’s needed.
Aaron Rhyne’s carefully chosen projections enhance the action without overdoing it. After being told the diminutive Pelkey designed footwear for himself by stacking the soles of rainbow colored flip flop under a pair of sneakers—one of the sneakers, wet and stained, appears on screen as “Exhibit A” in the case, as do other pieces of the puzzle, such as a fuzzy picture of Pelkey, and pages from his journal.
All the characters, with the exception of a teacher with an English accent, speak in a version of unremarkable yet unique South Jersey, which solidifies the bond of sameness in a small community where everyone knows each other’s business.
Concerned citizens warned Pelkey to tone down the mascara, the nail polish, the glitz, but he was determined to live not out of fear, but comfortably in his own skin, and sadly, ultimately, he pays the price. Without giving too much away, the case is solved, but the motive remains ambiguous. On all levels, Lecesne challenges us to exercise our imaginations and question our own beliefs, refreshingly resisting spoon-feeding us his personal point of view.
Lecesne’s message is ultimately optimistic and welcome in these troubled times in which we live.
In an interview with Fiona Kyle that appears in the program, Lecesne says, “With so much in the news about how we are divided as Americans, audiences seem to welcome a story that recognizes and champions our common humanity. The need for stories that support ideas like the value of diversity and inclusion has never been stronger... .My hope is that we all begin to see and value one another’s gifts before it’s too late. We can start by celebrating what is most bright not only in one another, but also in ourselves.”
These wise and uplifting words are interpreted through art, in this case live theater, which is one of the best ways to capture our attention—and touch our hearts.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford through April 23. For tickets and information, visit www.hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.