Some cases just stick with you.
We probably all either know a grisled retired police officer who has uttered something to that effect or at least seen one do so on a network TV procedural. For former detective Chuck Desantis, that particularly unforgettable case involved the disappearance of a teenage boy in his small New Jersey town. The case of Leonard Pelkey not only stuck with Chuck but also changed his life in a variety of unexpected ways.
Despite the fact that the case we closed ten years ago, it still brings Chuck down to his basement (designed so invitingly by Britton Mauk that you’ll want to take your seat there rather than in the audience bank) where he relives and reenacts it before our eyes. City Theatre’s production of James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is both light on its feet and heavy on the heart. With a powerful performance and an even more powerful message at the center, it proves that some plays just stuck with you too.
If the name James Lecesne doesn’t ring a bell, I’m sure that the Academy Award-winning short film Trevor that he scripted might. If not that, then surely the organization that Lecesne founded based on the success of that film called The Trevor Project. Since 1998, The Trevor Project has been a vital resource and lifeline for LGBTQ+ teenagers in crisis and in need of counsel, whether it be over the phone, in person, or online.
This play exists as another bridge between Lecesne’s activism and his art. He starred in its original, highly acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway premiere. In addition to an Outer Critics Circle Award win, …Leonard Pelkey has made its way across the country over the last two years with some high profile regional productions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Of all the colorful characters we’re introduced to over the brisk 75-minute runtime of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, the titular character is unfortunately not one of them. The audience never comes into direct contact with his blinding inner brightness, but its shadow is cast wide over the lives of the people he knew and loved. While most kids Leonard’s age struggle internally to answer questions about their identity, Leonard truly lives out loud. He is a very active participant in his area’s local theatre productions. He has a flair for daring fashion and designs a pair of amazing technicolor dream Chuck Taylors. When his brash and sassy “aunt” Ellen Hertle storms into Chuck’s precinct with her unassuming daughter Phoebe in tow, she worries that, while all of those things are what she loved most about Leonard, they may have made him a target.
With no strong leads, Chuck sets out to interview residents of the town that might have seen Leonard last. This includes a patron of Ellen’s salon Hair Today, Leonard’s drama teacher, and the owner of a clock shop who spends his days lamenting how the digital age is killing his business. Their testimonies and a random assortment of clues (primarily Leonard’s discarded belongings) add up to almost nothing until Gloria Salzano makes a gruesome discovery when looking at the ocean through her binoculars. This tragic break in the case simultaneously changes the question at the heart of Chuck’s investigation and harden his resolve to answer it.
It may have taken a village to solve the mystery of Leonard Pelkey, but it only took one person to bring that village to life. A total of nine different characters are convincingly inhabited and imbued with unique personalities by the incredible shapeshifter Keith Randolph Smith. He is like one of those collages of pictures pinned to a wall and connected by criss crossed red yarn in the flesh. With a simple change in posture or accent, he becomes the video game-obsessed Travis Lembeck one minute and the chain smoking Marion Tochterman the next. If the character of Chuck gets lost amidst the whackier characters surrounding him, the depth and humor Smith layers into those other eight roles (especially Ellen’s) are entirely to blame and I’m not complaining.
Director Laura Savia has extended his work by establishing certain characters by their locations on stage. She uses Chuck as the narrative anchor and subtle shifts in focus between scenes to create three distinct settings and several clearly delineated characters in just half of the stage’s area. It’s easy to be frustrated with the way that the mystery of Leonard’s fate goes from zero to solved in a blink-and-you-missed-it revelation late in the show, but luckily Savia and lighting designer Isabella Byrd give in to the show’s flights of fancy, most notably in its finale.
It is uncanny that a show featuring only one person in its cast could speak so profoundly about the power of community. Similarly, it’s disheartening to think about real Leonards all across the globe wanting nothing more than to live honest, happy lives and having that innocent desire met with prejudice and persecution. For all those willing to bask in its glow, there is a beacon shining at City Theatre. And, in these dark times, there’s no denying the need for The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey to see the necessity and the power of acceptance.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays at City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio through February 25th. For more information, click here.