Being different isn’t always easy, especially when you’re 14. But when well-meaning people encourage kids to suppress who they are in order to conform to societal expectations, do they risk extinguishing the very thing that makes someone special?
That’s the heart of the message in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” a one-man show by playwright James Lecesne running now through July 24 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
In the course of this show, which is just over an hour long, we come to know a great deal about Leonard Pelkey, a 14-year old boy who defies convention. We know that this boy wears rainbow platform shoes that he made himself from a pair of Converse and several brightly colored pair of flip flops glued to the bottom. We know he’s a drama geek who insists on wearing fairy wings for his role as Ariel in “The Tempest.” We know he gives fashion and hair advice to middle aged women and we know he’s wise beyond his years.
We also know that he is gay and that he deeply affects everyone he comes into contact with. Many of the people in his life have encouraged him to “tone it down” in order to stay safe. So while this play tells the sad story of a young boy who is bullied for being “too much himself,” ultimately “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” offers a wonderfully positive and powerful message about staying true and making the most of our friendships with others.
Written and performed by Mr. Lecesne with direction by Tony Speciale, what makes this play truly intriguing is the fact that we never actually meet Leonard — we see him only as he is reflected back through the recollections of a series of people who came into contact with him, all of them portrayed seamlessly and brilliantly by Mr. Lecesne.
It’s quite a performance and the story is told as a recollection by Chuck DeSantis, a tough talking police detective in a small coastal New Jersey town who explains the case of Leonard’s disappearance.
It begins when Ellen Hertle, a local hairdresser, and her teenage daughter Phoebe come in to the police station report Leonard’s disappearance. Leonard, an orphan, is a relative who lives with Ellen and Phoebe and after providing some key information, the detective starts making the rounds, talking to people in hopes of finding the boy.
Leonard is a kid who has made a lot of friends during his short time in the town, not among classmates — he keeps a notebook of all the horrible injustices boys in his school have heaped upon him — but among the adults in his life. His friends are adults who appreciate his sense of humor, fashion choices, and keen perception — traits not often associated with 14-year-old boys.
As the play progresses, Mr. Lecesne takes us on a journey to meet Leonard’s friends, neighbors and arch enemies, from Buddy Howard, his drama coach, to Gloria Salzano, a mob widow and expert in knots who notices one of Leonard’s rainbow shoes floating on the lake, and even the bullies who taunted him. We also meet an old man with a thick European accent who owns the clock repair shop in town. The man tells how he sheltered Leonard in his store one day when he was being chased by a group of young thugs. He gave Leonard a pocket watch and noted that his flamboyant demeanor reminded him of his own son whom he used to beat in order to change him.
He regrets that now. But it’s too late for all that.
Mr. Lecesne is a veritable tour de force in this production. He doesn’t resort to wigs, make up or costume changes to affect his characters. The transformations are dramatic and come from within — expressed through the adroit use of body language and vocal intonations to offer a unique portrait of each character. It really works and we can truly picture each of these characters in our mind though the man portraying them never leaves the stage or alters his exterior appearance. At times, Mr. Lecesne even pulls of dialogue, spinning around adroitly to become alternately Ellen and Phoebe as the mother and daughter argue back and forth in the detective’s office.
It’s quite a performance, and a moving one at that. Though things don’t end well for Leonard — plays about gay teens who buck societal conventions in small towns rarely do — this one is hopeful in that it challenges society to do better.
Is it possible to be too much of one’s self? In the end, it seems the reason Leonard Pelkey made such an impression on all those he met was because he refused to suppress who he was. Given all that we see going on in the world today, we can only hope that times and attitudes are changing so bright lights like Leonard can continue to shine.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” runs through July 24, 2016 at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. For tickets call the box office at (631)725-9500, open 11 a.m. to showtime daily or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.