Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Joe Foust. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Conor McShane
THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY, a solo show originally written and performed by James Lecesne, demonstrates how a single person can impact a whole community and does so in a very literal way: veteran Chicago actor Joe Foust inhabits every character in this story. And while the titular Leonard is never seen, Foust’s constant presence underscores the connections that tie us all together, and that these connections can bring meaning to our lives.
The protagonist is Detective DeSantis, a cop in a sleepy burg along the Jersey Shore, the setting signaled from the pre-show playlist featuring such Garden State luminaries as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. His beat is pretty ordinary until a local hairdresser named Ellen comes into the station looking for help to find her nephew Leonard Pelkey, a local 14-year-old boy who has gone missing. Leonard, we come to understand, is not like other people in town: he is flamboyantly, unapologetically himself, dressing in colorful clothes, wearing homemade rainbow platform shoes, and offering hairstyle advice to the locals. In short, he’s the kind of kid who would stick out like a sore thumb in a town like this, drawing unwanted, sometimes violent attention from his less open-minded classmates. DeSantis sets out to discover the truth of what happened to Leonard, interviewing a host of colorful locals who found themselves in the young man’s orbit. It turns out Leonard was a special kid in more ways than one, affecting everyone he came in contact with, changing most everyone’s lives for the better.
The principal reason to see this play (among the many) is the masterclass in acting that is Joe Foust’s performance. Often switching between several characters in the same scene, he’s riveting to watch. Many of them start out as broadly-drawn stock types—the sassy Jersey hairdresser and her snarky teen daughter, the pompous British drama teacher, the eccentric German horologist, the gravel-voiced smoker—but Foust, working from Lecesne’s sharp script, imbues each of them with humanity and pathos. We often watch a character take on new dimensions before our eyes over the course of a monologue, starting out as a caricature and deepening through the writing and performance. It’s perhaps a no-duh statement to say that taking on a solo show like this is a daunting task, but Foust makes it look effortless. Through subtle changes in physicality, along with some not-so-subtle dialects, Foust makes each character distinct and memorable.
For such dark subject matter, ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS is a lighthearted, even comic play most of the time. It’s the rare play that manages to be both heart-rending and life-affirming, never succumbing to darkness but not shying away from the harsh realities at the heart of the story. This is achieved by focusing on the person that Leonard was at his core, a light of positivity and self-possession in a town where most residents are unable to know themselves in the same way.
Lecesne asks, how much of who we are is determined by who we were? After interviewing a list of Leonard’s bullies found in an old notebook next to a description of their crimes, DeSantis realizes that as a kid, he was not much different from them, picking on kids who stood out in some way, a far cry from the gruff but humane detective we know he would become. At the top of the play, DeSantis quotes Shakespeare, something he tells us he never would have done before, had it not been for his indirect connection to Leonard. Lecesne seems to suggest that we are capable of becoming our best, truest self—something that Leonard seemed to figure out earlier than most of us—and that living an authentic life is worth the heartache it can bring. Multiple characters mention telling Leonard to tone it down, to not be so doggedly individual; in other words, to subvert his identity in the name of his safety. That Leonard refused to back down is what makes his story so inspiring and tragic at the same time.
Though Foust is alone onstage, that doesn’t mean he has to carry the whole story himself. Director Kurt Johns–no stranger to solo theater, having co-founded SoloChicago Theatre–manages the disparate tones with ease, allowing the comic and the tragic to live together without one overwhelming the other. On the technical side, it never takes too long to figure out where we are or who we’re watching, with Foust’s characterizations aided by G. Max Maxin IV’s projection design and Jared Gooding’s lighting succinctly suggesting time and place. They work together to illuminate Grant Sabin’s set, a dreary police station standing in for an assortment of locations, a grey counterpoint to the rainbow brightness that Leonard embodied. ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS is a great example that truly all you need to make good theatre is a talented actor to tell a movingly human story. When you really know yourself, everything else is just pretty adornment.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” runs through April 27. For more information visit AmericanBluesTheater.com.