James Lecesne in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey." Photo by Jim Cox
James Lecesne’s one-man show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey succeeds on multiple levels. It’s a murder mystery presided over by a hardboiled Jersey shore detective who’s more sensitive than he lets on. It’s a character study of an eccentric yet typically American community where, when all is said and done, people care for each other. Most profoundly, it’s a story about the need to accept, to even love, people for what they are.
In the 80-minute performance based on Lecesne’s 2008 young-adult novel “Absolute Brightness,” he portrays nine characters, from a precocious teen girl to the elderly man who runs a clock shop. They’re all deeply impacted one way or the other by the ultimately discovered hate-crime murder of a 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey who lived among them and in a short time touched their lives. A gay boy who wore rainbow-colored sneakers, donned fairy wings in a production by the Buddy Howard School of Drama and Dance, and advised the local ladies on their hair and clothes, Leonard was proudly who he was. A dreamer with a generous heart, he saw the adults around him, one townsperson recalled, not as how they were but how they hoped to be.
Lecesne’s seamless embodying of these individuals’ full idiosyncratic selves is impressive on its own, but he also deftly enacts conversations between them without the distracting awkwardness of trying to switch on a dime from one persona to another. Furthermore, his script balances the gravity of the town murder and the subsequent grief with the delightful quirks of some of the citizens detective Chuck Desantis interviews – Otto Beckerman the clock man, the binoculars-wielding mob widow Gloria Salzano, and chainsmoker Marion Tochterman, to name three.
Lecesne is a co-founder of the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth that is named for his earlier one-man show Word of Mouth. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, directed by Tony Speciale, has much to say about being true to oneself and about tolerance, reminders that should reside in every American town, today more than ever. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/11/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.