Review: ‘Absolute Brightness’ illuminates the stage at the Suzanne Roberts

By Margaret Darby

The Philadelphia Theatre Company staging of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey starts with an unassuming-looking man bouncing onto the stage. He immediately turns on his own inner light. James Lecesne, who created this miniature of his 2008 teen novel, Absolute Brightness, has an uncanny ability to change posture, voice, and demeanor in an instant. He starts as the play’s narrator, Officer Chuck DeSantis, the policeman in charge of searching for the missing Leonard Pelkey.

“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” adapted and performed by James Lecese. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Officer Chuck is just about to enjoy a cruller and coffee when he is inconveniently interrupted by Ellen Hertle, local hairdresser, who wants to report that her Leonard is missing. Lecesne becomes Ellen Hertle by turning his back to the audience and immediately facing them again with his arm bent holding his imaginary pocketbook, trying to impress Officer Desantis with the urgency of the situation.

Seconds later, when Ms. Hertle answers a call on her cell phone, Lecesne takes on the awkward, hair-flipping, sock-pulling, head-tilting idiosyncracies of Ms. Hertle’s teenage daughter, Phoebe, as she tries to answer more questions about Leonard.

James Lecesne goes on to portray all the residents being interviewed about Leonard. He is a chameleon, becoming the character so completely that it is difficult to remember it is still Lecesne on the stage. We are listening to Ellen, Phoebe, Travis, and Peggy Brinkerhoff.  When he interviews the drama teacher, Bud Howard, you have to sit on your hands to keep from running onto the stage and punching the pompous snob in the mouth.

The only problem with this gem of a play is that Lecesne has created a rival for his excellent teen novel on which it is based. He has skillfully rewritten his story, mercilessly cutting away some of the most interesting characters to carve out a short play. The book has the power to transform the reader as they discover the warmth, talent, and forgiving nature of Leonard Pelkey. Read it and you will understand the power of James Lecesne’s activism through fiction.

Joe Winiarski’s simple set is a small-town police station. The backdrop becomes a screen for the projections designed by Aaron Rhyne with photography and animation by Matthew Sandager. The projections allow the audience to examine evidence, experience storms, and review photographs. The original music by Duncan Sheik was a little bland, but it fit.

This show brings award-winning acting and a top-class production to the Philadelphia Theatre Company at a crucial moment as incoming Producing Artistic Director Paige Price works to trim cost.  Instead of producing plays for the coming season, the PTC will present a line-up of readings, new plays, and speakers. In her curtain talk on opening night, Ms. Price said she wanted to ‘let the ink dry” before she announces the finalized 2017-18 season, but tentative plans, including a 24-hour play festival, mean the PTC will not go dark, especially with shows like Absolute Brightness.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company production of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey performances run Tuesdays through Sundays until June 4 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets starting at $15 are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420 or visiting PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.