It seems counter-intuitive that a play about a missing fourteen-year-old boy could be in any way funny or uplifting, but The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, written and performed by James Lecesne, is just that. It’s also poignant and inspiring and ultimately life-affirming, with a momentous message about individuality, diversity, acceptance, and positivity, in a masterful production at Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Directed with humor and sensitivity by Tony Speciale, Lecesne is brimming with real human emotion as he assumes the dispositions, demeanors, and voices of different members of a small town on the Jersey shore who share their reminiscences, opinions, and perspectives about the ebullient gay teen and his sudden disappearance. Though we never meet Leonard, we come to know him, to care about him, and to be invested in his life through a series of vivid characterizations and backstories of the people who lived, loved, and interacted with him, as recounted to the detective investigating the case and relayed by him in direct address to the audience, in a compelling narrative that merges a noir-inspired mystery with current social issues.
Lecesne captivates with his array of personalities, both male and female, switching effortlessly from the detective, to the women in Lenny’s family, to his drama teacher, neighbors, and watch repairman, with a change of comportment and speech pattern. He affects local, British, and German accents, moves around the stage and mimes the characters’ activities as they speak – looking out at the lake through binoculars, digging a cell phone out of a pocketbook and taking a call, smoking and putting out a cigarette. Every word, action, and feeling is clear and specific; every figure is individualized and recognizable.
All of that is accomplished by the astounding Lecesne in the same pair of slacks and shirt, adding only eyeglasses to distinguish two of the characters (costume design by Paul Marlow), in a simple office set furnished with just a stool, a chair, and a desk, on which are placed the detective’s files, notebook, and evidence (scenic design by Jo Winiarski). Original music by Duncan Sheik, sound by Christian Frederickson, and lighting by Matt Richards augment the mood and evoke the locales, and background projections by Aaron Rhyne, with original animation and photography by Matthew Sandager, give us a picture of the boy, his environment, and the personal possessions that define who he is and touch us deeply.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a tour-de-force paean to embracing who you are, and a joyous celebration of the tremendous impact that a luminous life can have on an individual, a community, and the world.
Running Time: Approximately 65 minutes, without intermission.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays through Sunday, June 4, 2017, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – 430 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.