Philadelphia Theatre Company’s final production of 2016-17 was announced as Bill Cain’s American Canvas, a drama about local artist Thomas Eakins and his famous painting The Gross Clinic, but plans fell through. PTC booked a touring one-man show in its place, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. While I'd looked forward to Cain’s play, James Lecesne’s sentimental piece – which he adapted from his novel and also performs – is a well-produced, smartly acted story.
Lecesne’s narrator is a New Jersey town’s Detective DeSantis, recalling a 10-year-old case, when 14-year-old Leonard Pelkey went missing. We never meet Leonard, but a rich portrait eventually emerges from the memories of those who knew him: A boy who wears pink-and-green plaid Capri pants, nail polish, and mascara and counsels middle-aged women to invest in a little black dress. “He saw us,” one remarks. “Not the way we are; the way we’re supposed to be.”
Leonard’s story is not a murder mystery, as it first seems; in fact, his sad fate is rather predictable. The teen who created his own “rainbow sneakers” – high-tops augmented by six brightly colored flip-flops glued in a stack to the shoes’ bottoms – is an inevitable target. “That’s the price he paid for being different on a daily basis,” a bully explains coolly about the constant harassment Leonard suffered.
Lecesne sketches the supporting characters broadly yet distinctly and honestly, starting with Leonard’s aunt and her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe, who have paid a social price for protecting Leonard. They took him in because he was the mother’s brother’s ex-girlfriend’s son whom no one wanted. Other characters are introduced as DeSantis investigates, “looking for shit in the shadows” about the quaint town’s rare murder.
Humor and heartache
The fiftyish actor, wearing brown slacks and a blue shirt, shifts from one character to another with a simple flourish: He spins around quickly. Hokey, but it works. His verbally and physically precise caricatures score laughs, especially the women and the British drama teacher who befriended Leonard, but also genuine humanity. Lecesne the playwright provides rich, specific details about each character.
The 70-minute play flies by. Its biggest problem: It feels breezy, with a predictable (albeit important and timely) moral about tolerance. Maybe the many laughs dull its edge; maybe we’ve seen similar stories, like The Laramie Project, which investigated (and named) real people about the Laramie, Wyoming, murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, with more gravitas and emotional depth. Maybe the framing device’s 10-years-later perspective pastes a happy ending on an event that should hit us harder. Director Tony Speciale’s traveling production, its sterile police office (designed by Jo Winiarski) decorated with Aaron Rhyne’s cutesy projections and Duncan Sheik’s restrained music, keeps us safely in the emotional shallow end.
While The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey doesn’t shine the harsh, angry light of truth on prejudice that continues today -- invigorated by the current administration’s backward views -- it waxes poetic about the joys of free expression and wide acceptance, wistfully hoping for better days. They can’t come too soon.