The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, the multi-character solo show James Lecesne fashioned for himself from his 2007 young adult novel, "Absolute Brightness," gives credit where credit is at last due. "I thought that it was important to include his name in the title," said the author, and it's quite a fire-and-light show he created.
Five-foot-four and flamboyant as all get-out, 14-year-old Leonard arrived in the book wearing pink/green capri pants and rainbow-hued sandals glued together from assorted flip-flops. He did Julie Andrews impersonations and talked constantly.
To everyone except him, he is gay. In his eyes, "I'm just being me," and that's how he plays it. A luminous force of nature with the courage to be himself, he wears down the town's resistance. But nobody notices until he vanishes — and, with him, his light.
In the play that began previewing during Gay Pride Week at the Westside Theatre, Leonard is posthumously evoked by a handful of Jersey townfolk who crossed paths with him. They report their impressions to Chuck DeSantis, a hardboiled gumshoe brought in to get to the bottom of things when it's only a missing-persons case. "The book had a lovely life, and it was well received. But after 2009-10 — after the 'It Gets Better' campaign and all its media attention — I just felt there was more to be said about it, and I thought, 'Oh, I could do this. I could play some of these people.'"
Lecesne's perspective on the case shifted with his workload and the mediums. "The book is told from the point of view of Phoebe, Leonard's 16-year-old cousin, and the emphasis was on what she was learning and what she was understanding," he said.
"For the play, I thought the detective was a more reliable narrator, almost familiar in storytelling terms. He's eager to find out the truth, and so is the audience. In that sense, I think people like him because he's leading the way. One of the funny things that has come out of all of this is that I've gotten so many people — men as well as women — who say, 'I'd like to go on a date with that guy.' I haven't taken anybody up on that yet, but, at the end of the run, I just might auction Chuck off for a night."
The mood and message also changed in the transition. "Basically, the bare bones of the story are the same. Initially, I was fascinated by the question of how to encourage young people to be themselves in an environment that discourages that. I think we all have a brightness in us. If given the right position, it can shine. I wanted to talk to adults as a way of encouraging them to get on board. I felt it was a chance to tell the same story to an adult audience — and tell it perhaps a little bit darker."
Now, it's a more cautionary tale. "There are certain risks and dangers to being yourself completely and fully if the people around you aren't supportive and caring — if you don't have a community that actually encourages that. People who are joyfully themselves are always upsetting to people who are not fully themselves. When people are fully themselves, they can inspire people or make people afraid."
Like Whoopi Goldberg, Lecesne is one of those solo performers that Mike Nichols shepherded into prominence. "He caught my Word of Mouth downtown at a little theatre and produced it Off-Broadway with Elaine May, with Eve Ensler directing. It won the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award, and I toured it."
It didn't stop there. One of the seven characters he played in that show was Trevor, a 13-year-old gay who attempts suicide. Director Peggy Rajski and producer Randy Stone were so moved by the character they talked Lecesne into turning the role into a screenplay, which, as "Trevor," won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short of 1994, tying ironically with something called "Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life."
When "Trevor" was shown on HBO, a suicide prevention lifeline was added to the telecast and inspired The Trevor Project, the only national 24/7 crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
"What's different now from 20 years ago is we're not just talking about lesbian and gay young people. We're talking about all young people, encouraging them to be their unique, amazing self. Today, they're more complicated. Their sexuality is more fluid. Their gender identity is in question. They're questioning. It's a time when it's their job to question who they are and experiment with who they are and find out."