Leonard Pelkey wasn’t officially an adult when he was brutally murdered, so his specific sexuality deserves a perpetual curtain of privacy. But the vivid public image he cultivated certainly caused endless speculation on his life and probably contributed to his death.
Years later, an old cop still mulls the lessons learned from the case and the changes that resulted. In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, now at the Old Globe Theatre, the cop shares the story nightly with audiences in the Globe’s White arena.
James Lecesne wrote the play, using material he’s been developing for 20 years, from another one-man play to a young-adult novel and now the present piece. As a supporting effort, he has established and maintained a national counseling and suicide-intervention – TheTrevorProject.org – for at-risk LGBTQ youth.
It’s a simple story: The 14-year-old Leonard, an un-wanted son of somebody’s girlfriend deposited with a small-town beautician somewhere on the Jersey Shore, is a bright, flamboyant and irrepressible non-conformist who inspired reactions to be expected from conventional peers. When his dead body is found tied to an anchor on the bottom of a local lake, the funeral, investigation, arrest and trial profoundly affects the community with changes surprisingly positive.
Lecesne is a polished and resourceful actor whose middle name could be sincerity. He tells the story with long monologues in character, changing gender, age, attitude and personal quirk as needed to include the contributions of a dozen or so people most directly involved. His personal life and feelings remain hooded in the service of his art.
This is a world where behavior follows strict patterns, assumptions are accepted and everyday language is pungent. More Frank Sinatra than Bruce Springsteen. The women pronounce “talk” as “tawk” and don’t notice if they’re called “dames.” Lecesne lingers over these folks, savoring their subtleties, until the story threatens to drag. Then the old cop steps in as authoritative narrator, the other party in most conversations, and reestablishes the thrust.
The story is worth telling as a reminder to us all that diverse patterns lead to shared rewards and that personal growth is a process that can benefit from understanding and suffer from needless restriction. It also is a marker of how far down the trail to such understandings we have travelled and how much further we must go.
Is this play the way to emphasize the message? Maybe. A lot depends on each auditor’s own link with the artist. I found the author too self-indulgent with some of the characterizations and too easily dismissive of iron-bound stereotypes with others. I was not fond of every physical twitch and distortion separating characters. But I never doubted the passion and commitment of Lecesne’s work.
Matt Richards’ lighting design – mainly a pool on an object under discussion or an outline around an area – is of good use to the effect. Duncan Sheik’s music bubbles along helpfully. Whatever directorial help Tony Speciale brought to the project doesn’t seem to have harmed what is, ultimately, a very heartfelt and personal declaration.
(Continues in the White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 29, 2017.)