By Lynn Venhaus
As we head into Pride Month, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” couldn’t be timelier, especially in this unfortunate age of intolerance.
This passion project from The Midnight Company stars an empathetic Joe Hanrahan in multiple roles and is deftly directed by Alicen Moser.
A one-man show, written by Celeste Lecesne, is based on their young adult novel, and illuminates a very personal struggle about acceptance.
Lecesne has gone by he/they since 2020, and is best known for winning an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1995, for “Trevor.” In 1998, they co-founded and launched The Trevor Project, which is a 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ+ youth.
The 2015 narrative fictional play is structured as a police procedural, with a detective seeking answers about a missing teen in a small-town on the Jersey Shore. A hard-hitting story that draws inspiration from such horrific true incidents as high school student Jadin Bell in Portland, Ore., who committed suicide after gay-shaming, and college student Matthew Shepard who was attacked and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, among other anti-gay hate crimes.
The playwright, who described Leonard as a luminous force of nature who encountered evil and whose magic wasn’t truly felt until he disappeared, shines a compassionate spotlight on this character you feel that you know.
Unapologetically flamboyant, theatrical, and true to himself, the 14-year-old chatterbox looked and acted as he pleased, just being himself. He planned to dress up as Lady Gaga on Halloween.
Bullied for being who he was, Leonard did win some people over. Details emerge about what a colorful presence he was, and how that light dimmed in the people’s lives who loved him.
Besides the inevitable pensive sadness that permeates the one-act, there is also a glimmer of hope about progress and brings more focus on the never-ending mission to understand those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning – and anyone who beats to a different drummer.
Over the course of 1 hour and 20 minutes, Leonard looms larger than life, although he is not physically present. We feel him. We see him through the people who knew him, which Hanrahan effectively presents.
Besides playing the primary character — police detective Chuck DeSoto, Hanrahan takes on the characters Chuck interviews – Ellen Hertle, a hair salon owner who cared for Leonard after his mother died, and her 16-year-old daughter Phoebe Hertle, who report him missing; Buddy Howard, who ran the drama and dance school where Leonard took classes; Gloria Salzano, who saw a platform sneaker floating in the lake next to her home; Marion Tochterman, Otto Beckerman, suspect Tyler Lembeck; and Chuck’s boss, Marty Branahan.
Trevor didn’t tell people he was gay, they just assumed, although he liked to remain a mystery. That didn’t stop name-calling. And he attempted suicide.
As Chuck discovers clues and puts together details of a brutal murder, it’s hard not to be moved by the melancholy, but also discover how this boy touched lives, and eventually made a difference in how people saw others.
The minimalist drama, with stage manager Linda Menard placing props on sparse furnishings and production support from Kevin Bowman, features expressive lighting design by Tony Anselmo in the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre.
Although Leonard isn’t a real person, you leave feeling like you know every character. Hanrahan, who often presents one-man shows, makes the people relatable.
The show’s message reflects Shakespeare’s line from “Hamlet”: “To thine own self be true,” and it’s always good to reinforce that, no matter how one identifies themselves. And to bring more attention to The Trevor Project – hotline is 1-866-488-7386.
Hanrahan, himself a force of nature, has dedicated this show to the Absolute Brightness of Travis Hanrahan, his son who died at age 27 in 2017.
The Midnight Company presents “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” from May 4-20, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., in the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N Grand Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63103. For more information, visit www.MidnightCompany.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.