There are a few variations, but basically the old adage goes something like this – "You never realize how much you love someone until they're gone." That's pretty much what "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" is about.
The one-man play, written by and starring James Lecesne runs at West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts from Dec. 2 to 4. In the show, Lecesne plays multiple characters in a small town on the New Jersey shore, including a police detective trying to find out what happened to the optimistic and flamboyant titular 14-year-old boy.
"Even though it's about a very serious subject, it is also very funny," Lecesne says. "I deliver it without being all message-y."
Lecesne got that emotional mix just right before with his script for 1994's "Trevor," an Oscar-winning short film about a teen who, realizing he's gay, contemplates suicide. The movie, and Lecesne's preceding novel, became the impetus for the Trevor Project, a national 24-hour hotline for LGBTQ youth.
"As the co-founder of the Trevor Project, the last 25 years of my life has been about making sure young people have the wherewithal within themselves to be themselves ... to encourage young people, whether they are LGBTQ or not, to be themselves."
The former "Will and Grace" writer went on to say that around 2006 and 2007 he noticed that there was "a new paradigm" in the United States where many more young people were benefiting from increasing acceptance of progressive communities.
"But there is also some danger to that that young people are not aware of," Lecesne adds. "There are some people who have a hard time with that, especially someone as flamboyant as Leonard Pelkey. It is only after Leonard is gone that these people in the town begin to understand what he gave them and what he provided the community."
Lecesne – whose acting credits include Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" on Broadway as well as productions of "Cloud 9" and "The Boys in the Band" – says another spark for writing the young adult novel, from which this stage play is drawn, was a rash of high profile suicides of young people in 2011.
"The media took up the cause of bullying as the thing, and rightly so," he continues. "But after that there was an opportunity to talk to adults, as well as young people, about what is our responsibility in terms of watching out for these young people. Not just LGBTQ people, but all young people and to offer some of the protections that we all need. One thing I am still, to this very day, shocked about is how many of [children and teens] do not have anyone in their lives that is looking out for them. That is one of the most stunning things."
Unlike the novel, in the play Pelkey doesn't actually appear. Lecesne says he wrote the play around the central character.
"I play the people, like nine key people in that little New Jersey town from which Leonard disappeared," he explains. "The show is really an investigation of his disappearance and what happened to him. But it's also about how he touched all their lives. You know 'Trevor' began as a solo show I did 20 some years ago. One of the great things about being a solo performer is I get to light up people's imagination, that they get to be the costume designer, the set designer ... because I don't really change costumes and there's one set. I give [the audience] the prompts to use their imaginations. They see it in their minds. It is something we do in a room together as opposed to people just watching me."
The audience will also have incidental music by Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening") to help immerse them into the play.
"The very first time I performed it, it was about 10 minutes of it at an artists' retreat in upstate New York. He came up to see it and he came up to me afterward and said, 'I'm going to write music for this.' I said, 'Well, it's not really a musical.' But then he said, 'Yeah, but you're going to need music in between, underscoring and intros and outros.' I knew him before, but this was just such a generous and spontaneous offer."
So far, the tour is booked for performances in places, such as Hartfort, Laguna Beach and San Diego.
"I would like to get into the middle of the country," Lecesne says. "I feel so strongly about that. For example, just today the Department of Justice says it will start an investigation of the alleged increase of hate speech and hate crimes since the election. And certainly the LGBTQ community is part of that group being targeted. The more people can be sensitized and literally be moved by something that maybe they don't understand ... I'm just glad to be going to places where it's not their first language, that LGBTQ people and rights is not high on their list. But humanity is. It's on everyone's list."
"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" runs Dec. 2-4 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 Friday-Sunday; 1:30 p.m. matinee Sunday. Tickets are $32. To order, call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.