Leonard Pelkey is an orphaned 14-year-old boy – exuberantly fey, perpetually bullied, and totally incautious about expressing his essential nature. And he has gone missing.
In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey – a taut, 70-minute, one-man, many-character play based on his own young-adult novel – James Lecesne brings Leonard, and an entire town, to life. Directed by Tony Speciale for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, it’s a gorgeous performance of a work that emits a gentle afterglow. Lecesne’s portrayal of nearly a dozen characters earned him the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding solo performance and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for best solo performance.
The theme seems familiar enough: a community struggling to come to terms with its responsibility for, and reactions to, a possible hate crime. In some respects, Absolute Brightness is reminiscent of The Laramie Project, a 2000 play by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project based on oral histories gathered after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.
Absolute Brightness is set in a New Jersey Shore town. It begins 10 years after the events it describes, and it unspools in flashback. Lecesne’s narrator is a Shakespeare-spouting detective, Chuck DeSantis, who catches what seems at first like an ordinary missing-persons case. Except that Leonard, it becomes clear, is anything but ordinary.
With no apparent living relatives, the boy has been taken in by a hair-salon owner, Ellen Hertle, who thinks of him as a nephew. Her 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe, reports that Leonard’s freakish behavior dragged down her social status. But salon customers valued his advice on their hairstyles and fashion choices. (He pushes little black dresses, which turn out to come in handy.)
Leonard’s unalloyed flamboyance makes him a natural for theater. As the drama school head relates, he is cast as the fairy Ariel – with wings, Leonard insists – in a production of The Tempest. Leonard also enjoys reading David Copperfield with the owner of a clock-repair shop who sees in the boy his own crushed youthful longings. Having cut short his last visit with Leonard, the shopkeeper wishes desperately he had not – but time, he says he knows better than most, runs only in one direction.
All these characters and others, male and female, with their distinctive accents and physical mannerisms are played by Lecesne with total conviction. Only Leonard is absent, represented instead by a blurred photograph, images of objects he has owned — including a money clip engraved by his late mother and a rainbow platform sneaker he has fashioned — and, of course, memories.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is, at first glance, a somewhat predictable brief for tolerance and diversity. But lifting it beyond the commonplace is the vividness with which Lecesne depicts both Leonard himself and his continuing impact on those who knew him. The show’s animating idea is beautiful and profoundly comforting: that our lives, especially the best of them, shine even after they’re extinguished, transforming everyone they have touched.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Through June 4 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $15-$62. Information: 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.