Review: “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”

Joe Foust in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: American Blues
Theater at Stage 773,
1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through April 27
Tickets: $19-$39
Phone: 773-654-3103

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater critic

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is an anomaly. Although the one act play is about a horrific hate crime, we’re left feeling full of hope for humanity. It’s also a solo show, but we never see the title character. Instead, we meet nine people whose lives he affected.

Written and originally performed by James Lecesne, author of the 1995 Academy Award-winning short film “Trevor” on which the eponymous musical is based and co-founder of The Trevor Project, the suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth, the 75-minute play is enjoying an engrossing Chicago premiere thanks to versatile actor Joe Foust, sensitive director Kurt Johns, and a savvy design team.

The story begins like a classic detective film noir with Foust as the seasoned, Shakespeare-loving   gumshoe Chuck DeSantis recounting a case in a small town on the New Jersey shore about a decade earlier. One day, Ellen Hertle, abrasive no-nonsense owner of a local hair salon, barges into his office to report the disappearance of her 14-year-old “nephew” (his family connection is actually vaguer) Leonard, who has been missing for 24…well, 19 hours and 47 minutes. She wants to know what DeSantis is going to do about it. With her is her timid 16-year-old daughter Phoebe who, with cogent humor typical of Lecesne’s writing, describes Ellen as “just a local beauty-stylist slash control freak.”

Clues begin to emerge as DeSantis’ investigation gets underway, and it becomes apparent that Leonard is no ordinary boy. Buddy Howard, British owner of the drama school the teenager attended, says, in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.” Ellen recalls that, when he disappeared, he was wearing a pair of multicolored platform sneakers he’d made by gluing a stack of flip-flops to the bottom of Converse high-tops.

Events takes an ominous turn when Gloria Salzano, a philosophizing mob widow living near a lake, sees one of Leonard’s unique shoes bobbing in the water. DeSantis’ encounters with clock shop owner Otto Beckerman and homophobic teen Travis Lembeck help flesh out the lead-up to the boy’s senseless murder and its aftermath.

Perhaps the clearest picture we get of Leonard and his determination to be true to himself no matter the consequences comes from gravel-voiced Marion Tochterman, a customer of Ellen’s salon, who tells us she tried to warn him. “Tone it down honey, I said to him. The nail polish, the mascara — maybe not so much. He claimed he was just being himself. All right, fine, but do you have to be so much yourself? He told me if he stopped being himself the terrorists would win. How do you argue with a kid like that?”

At the same time, the emphasis is as much on DeSantis and his sources of information as on the victim. Foust’s engaging portraits are admirably distinctive, and he creates them with just a few simple props, such as 1950s eyeglasses on a chain for Gloria and a detective’s badge for DeSantis.

As these people reveal how they felt about Leonard, and how he changed their lives, most of them become increasingly likable. Even supposedly hard-boiled DeSantis turns out to be a softie, helping to give the evening a warm glow.

Similarly, G. “Max” Maxin IV’s rainbow-hued projections brighten the austerity of Grant Sabin’s police office scenic design and Jared Gooding’s lighting. Travis Bihn’s costumes and Mary O’Dowd’s props contribute to the characters, while Eric Backus’ music and sound design enhance the atmosphere.

I’m not normally a big fan of one-person shows, but in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,”

Foust vividly brings to life the people of a town on the Jersey shore and how they respond to a tragedy, as well as a boy who, as DeSantis points out, took Polonius’ main precept to heart.