By Karen Isaacs
Please get to Hartford Stage to see T”he Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” which is running through April 23.
It is an absorbing and touching play that will leave you shaken at the wasted lives. But it will also make you appreciate others more.
It is a one man show, but you will think the stage is populated by many people. That’s due to the brilliance of James Lecesne who both developed this play and performs it.
He frames this story as an old-fashioned detective story which helps to keep you totally engaged. He plays Chuck DeSantis, a detective in a quiet southern Jersey shore town. One day, a local hairdresser and her teenage daughter show up to report that Leonard Pelkey, the teenage nephew of the woman, has been missing for almost 24 hours.
In the next taut 70 minutes, the detective pursues first the missing person case and later, unfortunately, the murder case; the boy is found dead in a lake. During the process of investigating the case, he meets and interviews a number of people; the widow of a local mobster, the British man who with his wife runs a local drama school, some teenagers, and of course the aunt and her daughter.
Each time, Lscesne with just a change in voice, posture, accent and a few gestures, turns himself into each character. And we learn more and more about this boy, who was too “out there” for his own safety. He not only was gay but embraced a flamboyant lifestyle.
What we also learn is how Leonard touched the lives of all of the people interviewed. Yes, he was outrageous, but he also was himself. He wasn’t going to tone down or hide who he was. He was comfortable with himself and he wanted others to be also.
It is not that he radiated goodness, but that he had, as Lecesne says “an absolute brightness.” He helped people be more comfortable with whom they were; they received a measure of courage from his willingness to be so true to himself.
It wasn’t that his life was perfect. As an outsider, he was bullied and made fun of, yet he did not return it in kind; instead he helped others be there better selves.
All too often, one person plays are static. One character talks to the audience with the occasional artificial interruption of a telephone call or doorbell. Yet, the best one-person plays, have multiple characters and dialogue that makes us believe two or more people are conversing.
This is what Lecesne gives us. In the program notes, Lescene explains that in the young adult novel of the same name which was published in 2008, the story was told by Phoebe, Leonard’s cousin. When he wrote the play, he decided to make the detective the story teller. It gives the show the added bonus of seemingly being like one of the great Hollywood film noir stores; the experienced detective, who can tell us his impressions of the people he meets. Plus we get some great lines reminiscent of any Phillip Marlowe novel.
Lecesne explains that the title refers first to the astronomical term defined as “the total amount of light produced by a star irrespective of its distance from an observer.” But here, he is using it a metaphor for how each of us “brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.”
In this production is not only the absolute brightness of Leonard Pelkey that shines; it is the absolute brightness of James Lecesne that also shines.
You leave the play emotionally moved by the story and excited by the outstanding production.
It runs through April 23 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.