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Theater & Dance

Don't Miss: James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

Don't Miss: James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

James Lecesne

The one-man play currently Off-Broadway in New York is a lesson in empathy

James Lecesne in 'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' | Photo by Matthew Murphy

We all know someone like Leonard Pelkey. He is that shimmering, bright soul that is a joy to be around. She is that standout individual who refuses to conform to what many deem "normal." This is what makes James Lecesne's The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a one-man show currently Off-Broadway in New York City, such an incredibly moving and evocative piece. Instantly, the audience knows that something terrible has taken place, so we will never meet the titular character, but that doesn't make the show any less compelling.

In a note from the playwright in the program, Lecesne explains that he's often asked if this story is real. The play is based on his novel by the same title, about the murder of a 14-year-old New Jersey boy, but to completely dismiss the tale as pure fiction is somewhat nearsighted.

Lecesne is known to many as the co-founder of The Trever Project, and it's one reason why he has become an expert in understanding such tragic stories. "There are certainly enough of these cases around the country that I became aware of," he tells Out. "These stories of young people who were sort of not being looked after, who were not being protected, and who were daring to be themselves without the protections that kids deserve." These stories informed his writing and, without a doubt, all of these children are Leonard Pelkey.

Likewise, the denizens of a small hamlet on the Jersey Shore, the characters we get to know in the play, could be the concerned friends, family members, acquaintances, and citizens of any American town or city in the wake of such a tragedy. Lecesne adopts the vocalizations and mannerisms of a handful of characters -- a detective, a teenage girl, a British dance and drama instructor -- creating sterling examples of an array of men and women. Each nuance and the slight variations in accent, tone, modulation, and pitch allow the audience to truly see and hear the characters put in front of us, and Lecesne seems to handle it with ease. "I grew up there in New Jersey," he says. "It's my home-tongue, my home-language."

It is through these wonderfully crafted and fully realized characters that we come to know and love Leonard Pelkey ourselves. In a lot of ways, all by himself on stage, Lecesne creates an experience that reminds audiences of Moises Kaufman's poignant The Laramie Project and delivers a narrative that is just as gripping. During both plays, the audience watches a quiet town shaken to its core. We are crushed by the sorrow and grief of the locals. Most importantly, we are uplifted by their ability to bask in the radiant glow of hope despite the tragedy at hand.

Like Matthew Shepard did in real life, Lecesne's Leonard Pelkey's light is not extinguished by his disappearance, and the people who loved him and remember him fondly carry his memory like a torch. Lecesne's message embedded in the show implores audiences to accept and celebrate what makes each person unique and different.

"I would hope that people would think about difference after seeing the show," Lecesne says. "And more than just tolerating difference, that they would be able to accept it and understand that it's a valuable thing in all our lives when people are authentically themselves. I hope that they take away that it's a valuable thing to be yourself." He also shares that we all have a brightness that we bring to the table, adding: "I hope that people reflect on what it is that they're bringing into their communities or the people that they know and love."

Taking in a recent performance, the sheer beauty and power of Lecesne's story telling abilities and the plot he has constructed struck a deep chord in me. Tears welled in my eyes and streamed down my face for much of the middle third of the play and during the show's resolution. Challenging the audience to embrace and understand difference, celebrating the utter brilliance of a 14-year-old boy unafraid to be himself, and reminding us all that we benefit from being true to ourselves, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is definitely an Off-Broadway must see. Just be sure you bring some tissues with you. You'll need them.

Through Oct. 18. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., NYC

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