Hartford Stage's 'Absolute Brightness' Highlights Sexual Identity, Bullying

He has a warm, gentle voice. A sharp wit. A sense of history coupled with an interest in the here and now. An interest in where the world is going and a concern about how to live in it now.

James Lecesne is exactly the kind of person you want to have tell you a long story.

That's what he'll be doing when the celebrated writer, performer and activist brings his acclaimed one-man show "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" to Hartford Stage March 30 through April 23.

Lecesne stars in this tale that touches on issues of sexual identity, social stereotyping, bullying, self-awareness and spiritual growth.

Hartford Stage audiences already know Lecesne. He was one of the two frenetic faces manically changing costumes and twisting plots in Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" in 2004, then was the sole cast member of Doug Wright's drama "I Am My Own Wife" in 2007. He also appeared in Hartford Stage's premiere of the 20-author, four-actor meditation on parenting, "Motherhood Out Loud," in 2010.

Beyond the stage, Lecesne has become a noted advocate for LGBT teenagers. He wrote the screenplay for the 1995 short film "Trevor," about a 13-year-old boy who has a crush on a male classmate. The film won an Academy Award and is now being turned into a stage musical.

In 1998, Lecesne and "Trevor"'s co-producers Randy Stone and Peggy Rajski created The Trevor Project, a 24-hour "lifeline" that helps depressed and suicidal LGBT youth. The 24-hour lifeline began as a toll-free phone number but has expanded to include an online messaging service, social networking, school workshops, an annual "Trevor Hero Award" ceremony and other programs.

"I knew from my own experience that this idea of gender conformity wasn't true," Lecesne said in a phone interview from California last month. "I always knew I was gay. 'Trevor,' which I wrote 30 years ago, came about because I listened to the radio one day and heard a report about teen suicide. Part of the reason for doing 'Absolute Brightness' was my wanting to revive some of the same issues for the 21st century. Times change; that's part of the problem."

"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" was a 480-page book before it became an 80-minute play. Lecesne originally wrote the story as a young adult novel, told from the perspective of a young woman named Phoebe. Leonard Pelkey is the 14-year-old stepson of Phoebe's uncle. She is taken with his flamboyant nature but worries about how some of his classmates will respond to Leonard's rainbow-striped sneakers and his pleasure in sharing beauty tips. Then Leonard vanishes.

As Lecesne describes it, "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" is about "somebody who's missing. We are trying to figure out what happened to him, and why."

"I wanted to write something in a longer form than I was used to," Lecesne explains. "It's basically a series of monologues, so I knew I could do that." Years later, he found "I was still interested in telling that story, but from a different point of view. I wanted to be out in the world talking to older people about how we talk to younger people."

While Phoebe is still a character in the play, the narrator is now a Jersey Shore detective named Chuck DeSantis, out to solve the mystery of Leonard's disappearance.

Lecesne has performed the show for long runs in New York, California and elsewhere, plus one-nighters at colleges and high schools. "The response has been pretty universal," Lecesne says. "People embrace the journey that we are on. Something just happens between me and the audience."

The show mostly consists of Lecesne playing a host of characters: Leonard, DeSantis, Phoebe, her mother and others. There are also video projections, and an original music score by the pop songwriter and "Spring Awakening" composer Duncan Sheik. "I've known Duncan for a while," Lecesne says. "He saw the show while I was working on it, and said 'You need music for this. I'll write you some.' It was an incredibly generous offer."

"The thing I hear most," the actor/writer says about his Leonard Pelkey tale, "is 'Is this a real story?' People say, 'I seem to remember something like this happening.' It is a totally made-up story, but people treat it like it's a documentary. That's high praise."

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY, written and performed by James Lecesne, runs March 30 to April 23 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added performances April 2 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and April 8, 12 and 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$90. 50 Church St., Hartford. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the year James Lecesne appeared in Doug Wright's drama "I Am My Own Wife" in 2007 at Hartford Stage.

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