Play about missing teen finds life-affirming humanity in a grim scenario

The title “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” provides little clue or indication as to its content, story, subject or themes.

But a good start is playwright-actor James Lecesne’s definition of “absolute brightness” as the quality of a person being as true to themselves as possible. Knowing that Leonard Pelkey is an unusual, iconoclastic 14-year-old from a small Jersey Shore town also helps.

Lecesne’s 2015 off-Broadway play is a solo show and no, Lecesne doesn’t portray Leonard. That’s because “Leonard Pelkey” begins with the somber fact that the individualistic teen has gone missing.

As we see in the show’s Orange County premiere at Laguna Playhouse, veteran East-Coast detective Chuck DeSantis was on the case from the get-go. We know, because he relates the story to us firsthand.

The Pelkey case, he tells us, started in April, 10 years ago, yet he still recalls every detail. Why this is so emerges as the facts of Leonard’s life are uncovered.
Reporting Leonard’s disappearance is Ellen Hertle, the hair salon owner who took Leonard under her wing after his mother’s death. In startling and impressive fashion, Lecesne transforms himself, in a heartbeat, from the hard-boiled Chuck to Ellen, the Jersey housewife epitomized.

The first of multiple impressive characterizations by the talented Lecesne also magnifies his importance to the show’s success. He might not have written the script with himself in mind, but after seeing his tour-de-force performance, it’s hard to imagine a more conventional staging – not to mention anyone else pulling off this theatrical feat with the same dexterity and bravado.

Yet Lecesne draws attention not to himself so much as to his characters and the compelling story – a testament to his ability to disappear into and fully inhabit the personalities of everyone in Leonard’s orbit.

Director Tony Speciale may have had a hand in helping to shape the show’s contours, but “Leonard Pelkey,” which enjoyed a successful run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in January 2016, seems to have come to Laguna as an already well-honed theatrical experience.

Even before we learn Leonard’s ultimate fate, we’re given a heads-up, and a sense of foreboding, when the detective tells us early on that “evil can happen anywhere – even here” and relates how “right off, I got that feeling that tells you something ain’t right.”
As Chuck sets off to dig into Leonard’s life to try to solve his disappearance, we meet, among others, Ellen Hertle and her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe; middle-aged Brit Buddy Howard, who runs the school for drama and dance where Leonard was enrolled; and Gloria Salzano, who spotted one of Leonard’s distinctive and colorful “platform sneakers,” which he designed and created, floating on the lake near her home.
Gloria Salzano, who spends hours viewing the nearby lake through binoculars, is just one of the many characters in the dazzling gallery James Lecesne’s script and acting create. The Laguna Playhouse production is the show’s Orange County premiere. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

To bring about each character change, Lecesne does a simple but effective 360-degree twirl. The move serves to signal us that we’re about to meet someone new. So good is Lecesne at filling out each new role, we quickly begin to relish seeing that move and knowing what’s to follow.

Lecesne creates memorable portrayals throughout, even in supporting roles like gravel-voiced chain smoker Marion, German clock and watch repairman Otto, and hateful Travis Lembeck, one of a handful of schoolmates who tormented Leonard.

As a playwright, Lecesne has an extraordinarily acute ear for his characters’ vernacular – and for crafting potent lines like Chuck’s musing “Is there anything in this world more unexpected than a human being?” His mastery of accents and dialects only partly sums up his acting prowess; he makes every word sound spontaneous, all while breathing life, and the breath of reality, into each persona.

In fact, “Leonard Pelkey” is infused with so much of the grim reality of today’s world, you’ll be tempted to seek out details of the story on which it’s based. Thing is, the play isn’t a true story but, rather, the product of Lecesne’s creative mind.

Even if he might have drawn inspiration or specifics from the well-known Matthew Shepard case, Lecesne has crafted a compelling, and absorbingly lifelike, story of a Shepard-like teen who refused to tone down his avant-garde mannerisms or fashion statements to avoid reprisals from intolerant aggressors.
The moment detective Chuck scrawls “possible hate crime” to himself in his notebook drives home the ubiquity of malevolence toward anyone viewed as different.
Credit Lecesne, then, with transforming such dark material into something so celebratory of humanity – a fine example of theatrical alchemy at its best.