James Lecesne is brilliant in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey on opening night at Laguna Playhouse


Chuck DeSantis, a New Jersey detective, stands in front of a precinct desk. Behind the desk, a film screen intermittently flashes the blurry picture of Leonard Pelkey, a 14-year-old boy known in town for his flamboyant style. We soon learn DeSantis is investigating Leonard’s disappearance. 

(Only later, as our understanding of the reason for Leonard’s absence grows, will we notice that one of the young man’s dirtied rainbow-colored platform sneakers also sits on the desk – and that the sneaker is a key element in the investigation.)

Actor James Lecesne takes the audience on a poignant and sometimes humorous journey in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey – the flashes of humor a challenge, given that it ends with the discovery of a brutal murder, but a task supremely well managed by the talented Lecesne. 

And Lecesne does it alone. Well, not entirely, the stage is filled with the characters he masterfully creates. 

Not only did Lecesne write the play (adapted from his 2008 young adult novel, Absolute Brightness), he has an unparalleled talent for bringing multiple characters to life, switching back and forth in an instant from the New Jersey detective, to a teenage video gamer, to the owner of a hair salon, to a mob widow, just to name a few. 

The out-of-focus picture of Leonard is all we see of him at first, but through the observations of other characters, Lecesne brings Leonard to life so vividly that his absence creates an unexpected void for the audience. 

Long after I left the theater, I still couldn’t get the visual of that rainbow platform sneaker out of my head. 

One would imagine a story dealing with the murder of a teenage boy would be morbid, but instead, in the collaborative magic of the writing, acting, and direction by Tony Speciale (and other behind the scenes artistry: Jo Winiarski’s scenic design, Paul Marlow’s costumes, Matt Richards’ lighting, Christian Frederickson’s sound design, Aaron Rhyne’s projection design, and Duncan Sheik’s original music), it’s surprisingly uplifting. Although he paid a price, Leonard lived in the world as he hoped it would be, not as it was. He saw people not as they were, but as they hoped to be. As one of the townspeople said, “Turns out we didn’t get enough of what we thought was too much.” 

Thanks to Lecesne, the audience will not soon forget the Technicolor spirit that Leonard Pelkey brought to so many lives in this wonderful play.