A story about connection

AM presents "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey"

Detective Chuck DeSantis is investigating the disappearance of flamboyant 14-year-old Leonard Pelkey. He talks to important people in Leonard's life and community, from his feisty aunt to his British drama teacher to a Mafia widow with a pair of binoculars who spots Leonard's trademark rainbow converse. 

This is the story told in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey," the newest play from the Actors' Mission. 

The catch is, all nine distinct characters are played by one actor. 

The one-man play stars Aaron Volner and is directed by Nina Tyler. Together, the two have worked to put together a unique show that uses a full cast of characters to tell an important story.  

Tyler found the script and was drawn to the play because of the "lovely story" it tells, in addition to the appeal of putting on a one-man show. Volner was drawn to the production and motivated to take it on for the creative challenge. 

"Shifting back and forth between the different characters and all that is just the sort of thing that I really love to sink my teeth into," he said. 

With some scenes requiring him to shift from one character to the next with just a few lines in between, figuring out how to make each character distinct was a unique challenge. Volner explained that, for him, the first step of developing each character was tying them back to the way they each related to the character of Leonard Pelkey and what their role was in his life. From that foundation, he built on the concept of who each character was outside of Leonard. 

For Tyler, more practical considerations came into play, like teaching Volner how to walk like a girl.

"He's adopted mannerisms for certain characters that no other character has. The stance is different. The habits are different," Tyler explained. 

Developing a unique physicality for each character has also been helpful for switching between them, according to Volner. 

"If you can match the characters in how they move, that makes it a lot easier to get back into their mindset for how they deliver their lines," he said.  

Because the focus of the play is on the characters, the set and costuming are designed to be kept minimal. Tyler explained that the original production was just an actor with a stool. While they wanted to keep things simple for this production as well, Tyler, Volner, and others who have stepped in to help with the production have found ways to add new elements to the play. The set is kept basic, but each character has their own home and space on the stage "to suggest a sense of place," according to Tyler. Other elements like lights, music and projections are also added to give a more fully realized sense of the story. 

Perhaps the biggest element added to the show, literally, is a line of colorful cardboard cutouts with detailed paintings of each character.  

"We wanted to help the audience identify which character Aaron was portraying, and to kind of give them a sense of weight and reality," Tyler explained. 

Originally, Tyler simply envisioned black silhouettes in different poses. While the cutouts do still have specific poses, which Volner also takes on as he portrays them, they became fully realized when the creative people at Actors' Mission came together to make each one a full painting. 

While Tyler noted that all of these additions aren't necessary to understand the story, she said they do help to enhance the full experience of the play. Everything has come together to create a "really pretty show," she said. But ultimately, it all serves the purpose of the story as each character gives "a testimony as to how Leonard, by being himself, was a gift to the community and to each of them," Tyler explained. 

She pointed out that it is a tragic and triggering story, and in some ways it shows the consequences that may come with authenticity. But she also believes it is an unapologetic story "about connection and the courage to be yourself." 

"I think at the end of the day, the show's about how people make each other brighter in their presence," Volner said. "And it's about telling people that when you have the chance."

"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" opens tomorrow night at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs. There will be performances at 7 p.m. May 10, 11, 17 and 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. May 12 and 19. Admission is free, and a complimentary meal is served one hour before showtime. 


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