Back in 2000, Moises Kaurman and his Tectonic Theater Project created a game-changer of a theatrical experience called “The Laramie Project” which investigated the reaction to the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard through the citizens of the city in which Shepard lived. Using a similar premise (albeit one based on fiction rather than true events), James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” attempts to demonstrate that, from a tolerance point of view, our nation has both taken huge strides and yet managed to remain stuck in quicksand.
Which of these two perspectives you take away from Lecesne’s lovely 75 minute solo play will in some measure depend on your willingness to buy into the author’s premise that true “brightness” can never be extinguished no matter how much sludge it may encounter. Chuck DeSantis, the detective investigating Leonard Pelkey’s disappearance firmly believes this. So, ultimately, do the hairdressers, mob boss widows, misfit teens, drama school instructors and all the others who populate the unnamed and not so progressive New Jersey town where the action of “Absolute Brightness” takes place.
Lecesne plays the whole lot of ‘em, smoothly weaving in and out of about a dozen personas with considerable skill and charm to burn, even when enacting the rotters. He is revisiting territory covered both in his young adult novel, “Absolute Brightness,” and in the depiction of Trevor. That protagonist was a 13 year old who was the subject of Lecesne’s Oscar-winning short film “Trevor” and the inspiration for the Trevor Project which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young men and women.
Leonard Pelkey feels like another version of Trevor. Here’s a kid who lives with an aunt who doesn’t pay him enough attention, a kid who refuses to use a cell phone, and insists on donning fairy wings to enact Ariel in a local production of “The Tempest.” Leonard has no shyness about approaching a woman and helping her replace outdated, “passé” lipstick. “He knew how to dress a salad,” recalls his equally misfit cousin, Phoebe, “and half the women in this town.”
We see a photograph of Leonard Pelkey, one of Aaron Rhyne’s projections of the exhibits and clues that DeSantis, our narrator, is sorting through as he tries to solve the mystery of Leonard’s disappearance. The image of a sandy haired 14 year old is blurry. We never meet Leonard, but through the accounts of the people who knew him, the kid comes sharply into focus as a young man who is solidly – but not defiantly – himself. This makes him the poster boy for “brightness” and to playwright Lecesne’s thinking, there is no characteristic more flattering. It also, alas, opens him up to persecution, and worse.
Using only an occasional pair of glasses to switch personas, Lecesne splendidly differentiates his rogues gallery of townsfolk, making each vivid and recognizable. Ellen Hurdle, the self-obsessed salon operating aunt who reports Leonard’s disappearance starts out feeling like a sketch, but she takes on some deeper shades later in the performance. Phoebe, Ellen’s daughter, is a self-assured teen who is protective of Leonard even if doing so won’t do anything to enhance her popularity. Characters who might otherwise be a little shady, aren’t. Hermit-like clock merchants and drama instructors with questionable pasts seem to bloom under DeSantis’s questions. Even the video game playing toughie who knows more about these events then he lets on might possess something resembling a soul. Leonard – or his memory – brings out the best in everybody.
Director Speciale treats this tale with great warmth that Lecesne so clearly wants it to convey. What might have been a very grim tale instead concludes on a hopeful note with our newly partnered detective having solved the case and taken up Shakespeare. Even in the police force, brightness clearly abounds.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through January 31 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 972-4488, www.absolutebrightnessplay.com