On the other end of the spectrum from Rules of Seconds is the one-person show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, by James Lecesne. Where the former features a spectacularly aggressive display of alpha-male peacocking, the latter centers on the story of a gentle teenager who, given the chance, would adorn himself with peacock feathers and flutter through the school hallways kicking up his custom rainbow platform sneakers. Yet the two plays share a central conflict: in both, a person who is deemed insufficiently masculine is targeted for violence by a bully who has abrogated to himself the privilege of defining what it takes to be a “real man”. I guess the investigation of toxic masculinity is simply in the air nowadays (gee, I wonder why?).
But I begin to digress. Or do I? In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Chuck Desantis (Keith Randolph Smith), a former detective in a small town on the New Jersey shore, relates the details of a life-transforming crime that occurred a decade ago. The victim was fourteen-year-old Leonard Pelkey, a genderqueer young man described by his aunt/adopted mother Ellen as “TOO MUCH.” Leonard was an iconoclast of a kid, one for whom flamboyant expression of his unique individuality was both an existential and political necessity. Ellen’s friend, Mrs. T, tells Desantis that she tried to warn Leonard to tone down his self-expression, but he insisted that “if he wasn’t himself the terrorists would win.” If that doesn’t sound like someone taking on the patriarchy, I don’t know what does.
As Desantis recounts the story of his investigation – from the first moment Ellen bustled into the police station to report Leonard missing to the resolution of the trial that convicts Leonard’s killer of a hate crime – he steps in and out of the roles of the various people in the community whose lives Leonard brightened during his short life among them. There’s Ellen herself, the strong-willed, chatterbox owner of a hair salon, who took Leonard under her wing as a kindred creative spirit. There’s Phoebe, Ellen’s somewhat introverted teenaged daughter, resentful of Leonard’s intrusion in her life but also envious of his courage and freedom. There’s the twee British director of the local theater and dance school, who recalls not ever having “met a child who can express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands” as Leonard could. There’s the German clock repairman, who saw, in Leonard, a chance to atone for the emotional damage he inflicted on his own gender-non-conforming son. There’s the pack-a-day-voiced, redheaded Mrs. T, whom Leonard convinced, along with all of Ellen’s other salon customers, to invest in a little black dress, on the theory that having such a dress would conjure the occasion to wear it. There’s the Italian mob-wife Gloria, who helps Desantis crack the case. And, last but certainly not least, there’s the crew of teenaged boys who took it on themselves to police Leonard’s masculinity through daily harassment and intimidation.
You’d think, from my description of all of these characters, that I saw them all on stage; but in fact, they are all brought to life by Smith, who shapeshifts into these and another half-dozen or so characters with vivid precision and empathy. Even the murderer gets a portrayal that allows us to see him as a fully fleshed out human being. Smith’s embodiment of the female characters that orbited Leonard’s charismatic star is particularly impressive, and although many of the characters are quirky, none are sent up as caricatures. What emerges is a portrait of a community coming to terms with, and learning to respect and value, difference in their midst.
The action takes place in Desantis’s basement, a space convincingly evoked by Britton Mauk’s well-observed scenic design (although a puzzling flaw in the play is that it provides no discernible motivation for its basement setting, nor for our “presence” as audience in Desantis’s basement). Isabella Byrd’s lighting design brings Leonard’s “brightness” into the space, particularly when colored lights embedded in the set make it glow like the rainbow of his homemade sneakers.
While the story Desantis tells has a fatal outcome for Leonard, the overall tone of the show is joyful and celebratory. Lecesne’s writing plants comedy in unexpected corners of the play’s world, and director Laura Savia threads the play’s sentiment lightly through its humor. While we never see more of Leonard than a blurred photograph and some personal items he left behind, the production makes him shine absolutely brightly in the imagination, and his fiercely stubborn and gloriously defiant insistence on being true to himself might serve as inspiration for change for audiences, just as it did in the town he left behind.