Review: 'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

Adapted from James Lecesne’s 2008 young adult novel, “Absolute Brightness,” this one-man play tells the story (or more like the “whodunit”) of an eccentric 14- year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey from the point-of-view of almost a dozen people whose lives he touched. “I Am What I Am” is most definitely Leonard’s theme song (in more ways than one), but it is only with his passing do those he’s affected realize how valuable his anthem was to them.

A New Jersey detective, Chuck DeSantis, acts as our tour guide through his investigation into the disappearance of Leonard Pelkey. Along the way, we meet a variety of characters, including a no-nonsense hairdresser, a teenaged girl, and a flamboyant British drama instructor.

You wouldn’t think that the story of a child’s disappearance would be heartwarming, but that’s the magic of this tale: it is an ideal blend of humor, poignancy, and sorrow, with an emphasis on the importance of self. This work also demonstrates effective storytelling: we come to care about a person that we never meet, all through the experiences told by others. It’s the portrait of a wonderfully complicated young man who left his seaside New Jersey town too soon. As one of the townspersons puts it, “Turns out we didn’t get enough of what we thought was too much.”

I always find it to be a feat of brilliance for someone to be able to play multiple characters in a show (think Jefferson Mays in “Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder”), and Mr. Lecesne is no exception. His effortless transitions are a thing to behold. Now, it is an initial jolt when he goes from macho detective to sexy hairdresser, but after that, you accept each character fully and completely. His subtle physical alterations allowed him to transform into the next character in an instant; an understated lift from the ball of the foot, or a modest tug at an invisible sock, and we were on to the next person. It should come as no surprise that Lecesne is as skilled as he is: he won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance in 1995 for his work “Word of Mouth,” directed by Eve Ensler, and has worked with directors like Tommy Tune (“Cloud 9”).

This wonderful 80-minute piece, aptly directed by Tony Especiale, is well rounded out with a clean, minimal set (Jo Winlarski); simple, subtle background sounds that added to the scenes (Christian Frederickson); effective projections (Aaron Rhyne); and original music (Duncan Sheik).  I highly recommend seeing this show; it is inspirational theatre and remarkable storytelling.

Photo: Matthew Murphy