The Midnight Company's Joseph Hanrahan Takes on His Latest One-man Show with
"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey"
Interview by Cristin Jackson /
May 2, 2023
Joe Hanrahan has done quite a few one-man shows in his time. For the artistic director and co-founder of The Midnight Company, tackling multiple characters and taking on an audience on his own is nothing new. But for his latest one-person play, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, on stage at The Kranzberg Black Box Theatre May 4–20, he is breaking tradition a bit. We caught up with Hanrahan ahead of the run to hear all about it.
For those who are unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about this story?
It's based on a novel by the playwright, Celeste Lecesne, and the play is called The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. And Leonard Pelkey is kind of the central character of the show, but you never see him. When the play starts, he has been reported missing by the woman and teenage girl that he lives with in this small town on the New Jersey Shore. It's a blue-collar town, and Leonard hasn't been in town long, and he's a real flamboyant, theatrical, in-your-face kid. He dresses like he wants, does what he wants. So he's raised the attention of a lot of people in town. A lot of the middle-aged folks love him. The woman he lives with runs a beauty salon, and all the women there love him because he gives them fashion tips and makeup tips and really helps them out. They all love him. And then. of course, he attends a drama school in this little town and they love him, but the high school bullies don't. And that's kind of where the things are happening. It’s a one-person show, and I play eight different characters in the play. The main one is a detective, and it's his job to find out where Leonard is. And in doing so, he talks to some different people in the town. At The Midnight Company, we like to very outwardly say, “We don't do message plays.” We don't preach about racism or sexism or this or that. I don't think it's our job to try to solve the world's problems like that. But this show does have a message of tolerance and understanding and acceptance of other people. This kid, in the short time he was in this town, had an incredible impact on all the people—but the message comes along with a really good story.
As you mentioned, it's a one-man show. Tell me a little bit about what it's been like living in this story on your own and crafting these characters.
The thing is, if you take one glance at The Midnight Company’s past production, you can tell I have done far too many one-person shows. I've done a whole bunch of them, and I keep running into good stories. I've done theater forever, and in my professional life I was in advertising and I traveled a lot. So I always didn't have a lot of time to do ensemble rehearsals and things. So one-person shows were a good way to keep doing theater. I really have done too many, but I know how to do it and I enjoy doing it. The one thing I've learned in this play, in terms of the craft, I mean, is that I have to work on making sure that each of these eight characters are distinct. They have different body postures, different types of voices and attitudes, to try to distinguish them. So that's an acting challenge. But I have found, getting in the middle of these plays, that when you do this, your empathy really builds for something that you really probably didn't think about before. I did The Grapes of Wrath several years ago, and I remember, for about three months after, if somebody came up and asked for money on the street, I'd give 'em whatever I had. I was just so conscious of thinking about poor people and how they struggled to survive as they tried to go west in the story. It's the same way [in this play,] too. I have empathy for Leonard. Trying to be yourself and live like you want in a society that may not like what you're doing or who you are shows great courage, and it should elicit great compassion from people. And that certainly strikes to a lot of things happening today and the political pressures on transgender folks and others.
As you’ve been working with these characters, have you been drawn to any of them in particular as a favorite or one you most identify with?
Well, my comfort zone is the detective. He's just a guy trying to understand these different things he's getting into, and I can relate to that. He's a cop, but he is a small town cop, so not a big, macho guy. That's my comfort zone. But the other characters really draw me in, too. I mean, there's the total opposite of this cop, a guy named Buddy Howard who runs the school of drama and dance in town. He's gay, but he's a closeted, married gay man. His wife is a dance teacher, and they run the school together…The most challenging character for me is the teenage girl who lived with Leonard, and it's not just because she's a teenage girl. I’m doing okay with the three more middle-aged women, but the teenage girl and her attitude and just someone that young living now…that attitude is something I can't totally grasp. I'm just trying to build that character around a couple of things that will make her stand out and get her message across. Most of the characters are fun in their own way.
What's it been like working with your director, Alicen Moser, on this piece?
It’s been very, very good. I've worked with Alicen a couple times before. I've directed her a couple times in shows for The Midnight Company, and I will be directing her in our July show. She’s very smart and has really come up with a lot of very specific things that have helped my characters in terms of just physical things and just attitudes and accents. She has a really good grasp of what we need to do, but at the same time, she's had great patience to let me work through it.
This play was written by one of the co-founders of The Trevor Project. Tell me about how The Midnight Company plans to highlight the organization during the run.
We investigated a few things. I've talked to their office a couple of times. They're a hardworking office with a press office there that I think is really overwhelmed. I was hoping they could maybe reach out in the St. Louis area a little bit, but I'm gonna try to do it myself. I just did a Facebook post on all the theater sites to draw attention and basically say that we want folks to be aware of this organization. It's certainly going to be in our program. And then, we've been in business for 26 years, and in all that time, I've only done two curtain speeches. We don't like curtain speeches. But I'm going to do a post-show curtain speech, mention The Trevor Project, and call the audience’s attention to it on the program. They may not need it now. They may not know anybody you need it now, but just stay aware of it just in case.
Who do you hope comes to experience this story?
You always hope that some folks who are struggling with understanding or living with some things would be there and at least get some comfort from it, you know? That's always a big goal. But this show, I think, is very well-written, and I think it really, really tugs at people. I'm just hoping everybody will come away from it with a little more understanding and tolerance.
Is there anything else you’d really like folks to know about this performance?
I say I've done too many one-man shows, but I think people can dismiss these kinds of shows pretty easily. Everybody is aware of and a lot of people go to these big shows and musicals and big sets and multiple characters. And those are all great—they're all part of theater. But when these smaller shows are done right and an audience is willing to go with it, a whole horizon can open for them. I hope when people come see this show, they go, Oh, I saw a show with eight different characters. I just hope that the story rings true. That's what it's really all about. That's the most important thing.
by James Lindhorst /
May 5, 2023
Leonard Pelkey was a flamboyant teenager who lived unapologetically and goes missing in a small town near the Jersey shore. 14-year-old Leonard's disappearance is investigated by a brash detective, Chuck DeSantis, who is looking for answers in the missing person case. THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY is Celeste Lecense's play steeped in the police investigation that forces Leonard's family and the people of the small community to confront their own biases and beliefs regarding Leonard's presumed sexuality
Midnight Company'sJoe Hanrahan performs all nine roles in the play that is narrated by detective Chuck Desantis as he tries to solve the mystery of what happened to Leonard. Along the way the audience is introduced to Leonard's Aunt Ellen, his cousin Phoebe, one of his bullies, Tyler, and to about another half-dozen characters. Hanrahan again proves himself an adept storyteller in a one-actor show as he effortlessly transitions in-and-out of characters using physical acting choices as opposed to significant alterations in his voice. Hanrahan is at his best when portraying Leonard's aunt as she emotionally confronts one of her nephew's bullies, but all of his characterizations have the requisite depth to make each character real.
Alicen Moser's brisk direction moves the action along quickly. Using only four set pieces on a black stage, Moser moves the audience from the detective's office to multiple different scene locales through her collaboration with her actor. Her vision of the narrative gives the story its heart to allow the script to resonate emotionally with the audience.
THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY is as relevant today as it was when it was originally produced off-Broadway in 2015.
"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" Is Painfully Poignant
by Tina Farmer /
May 9, 2023
Stereotypes lead to assumptions and conclusions that may or may not be true and can make people feel demeaned, excluded and not seen. Sometimes stereotypes lead people to ostracize or hurt others, and sometimes they can be used to remind us all why they are so harmful. Such is the case with Celeste Lecesne's one-act, one-person play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Joe Hanrahan plays all the characters in the short, precisely developed script, now on stage at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre.
A grizzled old detective introduces us to Leonard, a teenager who has gone missing. He found out about him when Helen, a comely hairdresser, and her daughter, Phoebe, came to the police station to file a report. Leonard wasn't Helen's son, but she had welcomed him into her home. Phoebe wasn't as enthusiastic about Leonard joining the family, though we learn that she protected him like a big sister.
Leonard was flamboyant and unabashedly comfortable in his skin, a trait some people in the tiny, insular community couldn't appreciate. Discomfort like that happens all the time, but it should never be a reason to take somebody's life. That's the central theme of the short play, and Hanrahan adroitly delivers that message time and again through clever, if familiar, characterizations coupled with a sense of authentic connection with the material.
Hanrahan's shifting characters remain grounded in the trappings and failings of humanity. At their worst, they make us squirm in our seats for our own transgressions. At their best, they give us hope for a world where everyone is seen and accepted no matter how they express themselves. His detective is gruff, grizzled and comfortable with terms and ways of describing people that come from a different generation. Initially, the detective is quick to warm to Helen and determined to find closure for her. As he learns more about Leonard, he begins to care about and feel compassion for the kid.
Lecesne's emotionally evocative script uses derogatory language and broad stereotypes to drive home the pain and very real loss that intolerance enables. Frankly, the stereotypes in the script sometimes threaten to drown out the important message. Good direction from Moser ensures the language comes across as dated instead of the thoughtless prejudice it reflects.
Though neither the audience nor the narrator has ever met Leonard Pelkey, the Midnight Company honors his memory and everyone else who has walked in his rainbow-colored shoes. The show is uncomfortable at times, and the playwright's point is almost obfuscated by the script's construct, but it is effective, evocative theater. That said, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a little repetitive and somewhat uninspiring. There's nothing new or groundbreaking here, though theatergoers looking for post-show conversation will find plenty to discuss.
by Gerry Kowarsky /
The Midnight Company’s Joe Hanahan is St. Louis’s leading exponent of solo performance. He burnishes his reputation for presenting one-actor shows in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.
The play by Celeste Lecesne is an adaptation of their young adult novel, Absolute Brightness. Hanrahan plays Chuck DeSantis, a middle-aged, police detective in a small town on the Jersey Shore. His beat is "the dark side": breaking and entry, homicide, missing persons." He tells the audience about a case that immediately gave him "that feeling that tells you something ain’t right, something’s off."
The ten-year-old case is the disappearance of 14-year-old Leonard Pelkey. It is reported by his aunt, Ellen Hertle, the owner of the local beauty salon, and her daughter Phoebe. Leonard has been missing just under 20 hours, but Ellen and Phoebe are very worried.
Ellen admits that Leonard isn’t really her nephew. He’s her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s son. Phoebe says Leonard is totally weird, but she likes weird. Also, Phoebe says Leonard is gay. Ellen thinks Leonard might not want that information given to strangers. Phoebe tells her Mom, "It’s the twenty-first century. No one cares."
Hanrahan’s gripping performance gives a distinctive manner to Chuck, Ellen, Phoebe, and the other six characters Chuck visits during his investigation. While trying to find out what happened to Leonard, Chuck learns what a remarkable person Leonard was. His positivity and flamboyance brightened the lives of others. Chuck never meets Leonard, but his influence on Chuck is clear in Hanrahan’s portrayal. The detective who might have stepped into the play from a film noir has a wholly different outlook on life at the end.
The Midnight Company rarely ends its shows with announcements, but Hanrahan ends this show with an announcement about The Trevor Project, which Lecesne co-founded. The program for the show includes the following note:
"The Trevor Project was the first nationwide 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth, including phone, in-person and online life-affirming resources such as Trevor Lifeline, TrevorChat, Trevor Space, AskTrevor and Trevor Education Workshops. The 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline – 1-866-488-7386."
The Midnight Company Tells Poignant Tale in "The Absolute Brilliance of Leonard Pelkey"
by Mark Bretz /
May 12, 2023
Highlights: Midnight Company founder and artistic director Joe Hanrahan delivers an ingratiating performance as a cadre of “everyday people” in this wistful, charming, one-character story about being different but also being true to oneself, despite the dangers.
Police officer Chuck DeSoto, toiling in obscurity in “some God-forsaken precinct down the Jersey shore,” is visited one day by a middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. Ellen Hertle tells DeSoto that her nephew, Leonard Pelkey, has been missing for 24 hours, or close enough for her to warrant filing a missing person’s report. Her daughter, Phoebe, just rolls her eyes.
DeSoto learns that 14-year-old Leonard is apparently gay, and flamboyantly so, which has led to incessant bullying by some of his classmates at the local high school. Suspecting possible foul play, DeSoto proceeds to interrogate a number of folks who know Leonard, including a gruff classmate named Tyler Lembeck.
The cop learns from Buddy Howard, an Englishman who runs a local drama school attended by Leonard, that Leonard was a remarkable kid. Leonard had a penchant for fearlessly expressing himself, such as gluing several flip-flop bottoms to his colorful sneakers. One of those shoes ominously is found floating in a nearby lake by mob widow Gloria Salzano, who reports that to the authorities in a chilling conversation with DeSoto.
In his talks with Ellen, Phoebe, Buddy, Gloria, Ellen’s friend Marion and Otto Beckerman, an aged clock repairer with a tragic secret of his own, Chuck pieces together the likely circumstances behind Leonard’s disappearance. He has, in all probability, the answers. But will justice be served?
Other Info: Celeste Lecesne wrote this one-act, 75-minute story, which opened in New York City in 2015. The play, which is based on Lecesne’s novel, "Absolute Brightness," is described in the original New York Times review as "a dark tale that shimmers with needling suspense you associate with the best police procedurals."
Indeed, Hanrahan’s portrayal of DeSoto is part Columbo, part Sam Spade and all parts accessible. Moving around the sparsely furnished set, doubtless a contribution of Kevin Bowman’s production support, Hanrahan gracefully glides into and out of sundry character portrayals with polish and panache, bringing each character into crystal clarity.
Tony Anselmo’s incisive lighting design enhances both the comic and poignant aspects of the presentation, which is gently steered by Alicen Moser’s careful and comfortable direction.
Lecesne has filled this short, heartwarming tale with a litany of vibrant characters, each of whom is well realized in Hanrahan’s depictions. In 1995, James (now Celeste) Lecesne wrote "Trevor," a short film which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. In 1998 Lecesne co-founded and launched The Trevor Project, the first nationwide, 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Snoops Theatre Thoughts
by By Michelle Kenyon /
The Midnight Company is currently back onstage with a poignant, emotional production that features Joe Hanrahan doing what he’s perhaps best known for–a one-man show. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey isn’t a one character show, however. Hanrahan gets to show his versatility here, telling a short but powerful story and playing a variety of roles, creating a memorable, remarkably affecting portrait of a small town in turmoil, and one character we never actually “meet” who makes the most profound impact of all.
Hanrahan narrates the story as Chuck DeSoto, a police detective in a small New Jersey town who is remembering the case that has affected him the most. The flashback format has DeSoto offering commentary on the proceedings as the story unfolds, and Hanrahan deftly morphs into the various players, starting when hair salon owner Ellen Hertle and her teenage daughter Phoebe walk into the police station to report a missing person. Leonard Pelkey is a 14-year-old boy who Ellen has been raising after his mothers’ death. Leonard has only been in town for about two years, but he’s already made an impression, with his “weird” theatrical personality and offbeat sense of personal style. It’s made fairly clear that Leonard is gay, as well, and he’s experienced a great deal of bullying at school.
As the story unfolds, the efforts to find what’s happened to Leonard unfold like a mystery story, and although there are sad and even tragic elements, there are also moments of hope, as we meet a series of characters who have been affected by Leonard in various ways, including the concerned Ellen; conflicted Phoebe; Buddy Howard, Leonard’s British-born drama instructor; clock repairman Otto Beckerman; and others. As the truth is discovered, we get to learn more about the various characters and their motivations–especially Phoebe, who is perhaps the most well-drawn character here besides Chuck. Also, even though Leonard never actually “appears” onstage, his character seems just as real as the others, and his influence pervades every moment.
It’s a short play, but especially well-constructed, and Hanrahan does an excellent job playing the various distinctive characters, especially Chuck, Phoebe, Ellen, and Otto. Hanrahan’s handles the humor and the drama well, and the pacing is excellent. Tony Anselmo’s lighting also adds much to the overall mood of the show.
The playwright, Celeste Lecesne, is also a co-founder of The Trevor Project, which provides a crisis hotline and other resources for LGBTQ+ youth. The theme of this show highlights the difficulties that young gay teens can endure, as well as the positive impact that one boy’s life can make on those around him, even in such a short time. The play also features an over-arching theme of individual expression and the importance of community support and respect. It’s a memorable effort from Joe Hanrahan and The Midnight Company.
One-man show "Leonard Pelkey" delves into intolerance and an Indomitable Spirit
by Lynn Venhaus /
May 19, 2023
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.