Dallas — As part of its Gay History Month Festival, Uptown Players is staging James Lecesne’s 2016 one-person show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Directed by Diana Sheehan, the emotionally demanding play stars Terry Martin, formerly of WaterTower Theatre and now the Head of Fine Arts at the Greenhill School in Addison.
Through the voices of nine characters, the story of Leonard, a gay 14-year-old boy who has gone missing, is revealed. The individual accounts collectively relate the story of the boy who, because of being “so much” of himself, can no longer tell his own version of events. The play is adapted from Lecesne’s YA novel Absolute Brightness.
We never hear Leonard’s voice, and the only time we see him is as an out-of-focus cell phone photo that serves as Exhibit A. Instead, our narrator and guide through the 75-minute play is hardboiled Chuck DeSantis, a police detective somewhere in present-day New Jersey. It’s been 10 years since the boy’s disappearance, and a lot has changed since then.
With a turn or a gesture or with the use of a simple prop, Martin seamlessly transforms from detective into the other characters, which includes Ellen Hertle, proprietress of the Hair Today salon, her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe, and Buddy Howard, the owner of the local theater and dance school where Leonard spent his afternoons.
Two standout characters are worth mentioning: mob widow Gloria Salzano, who worries about judgment in the afterlife for people who let bad things happen; and Otto Beckerman, who runs the clock repair shop. Beckerman opens up about bullying his own gay son when he was younger.
Leonard’s unapologetic way of living his life has touched the lives of the people of this small town. Beckerman calls him a miracle. And DeSantis now quotes Shakespeare as a result of knowing, no matter how indirectly, the colorful teenager.
Terry Martin fully embodies the nine characters he plays on stage. He skillfully captures their physical presence, posture, and manners of expression. The play stirs quite a range of emotions, from the slapstick physical comedy of police officer Marty Branahan to Beckerman’s remorseful weariness, and Martin is the able conduit and catalyst of it all.
Regrettably, Dennis Canright’s scenic design is somewhat weakened by the fact that the stage is serving double duty: another production that is running in the Gay History Festival (Straight) concurrently shares the space. Audiences shouldn’t be too confused, though. The minimalism of the Leonard Pelkey set—a table, a couple of chairs, an overhead projector and screen—helps to keep tight focus on Martin’s performance.
Properties designer Mary Aidala does a superb job at picking the items that not only define the life of the flamboyant teenager but also serve as evidence for the investigation and subsequent trial. The highlight, of course, is the prop that serves as the play’s central emblem: Converse Chuck Taylors with rainbow platform soles.
The sound design by Joe Hieke lends a simple believability to the play. With understated, on-the-mark sound cues, the intimate space is transformed from a police station to a dance studio to a teenage boy’s room. The cell phone that goes off during the first few minutes of the play is part of the performance.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is an uplifting, life-affirming play about how a town changes because of one gay kid who bravely disrupts its deadly sameness by being true to himself.
In one of the play’s exceptional moments, the clock repairman tries to make sense of such defiant optimism: “To see a boy like that in this world, in my shop, with no apology was, to me, a miracle. When I was a younger man, you understand, no boy like this was allowed to exist. Fathers beat it out of their sons long before they came to the schoolyard. Fathers were the bullies back then. I know. I was one. My son Richard— I told him it was for his own good when I found him downstairs in the basement dancing the ballet or wearing the lipstick or playing with his sister’s dolls. I tried to shake the daylights from him. But that is the problem, you see. You cannot shake it. The daylight, it comes again.”
With this production, Uptown Players shows the resilient bright side of Gay History Month.