In his 30-plus years on Capital Region stages, Richard Michael Roe has been described by theater critics as "brilliant," "estimable," "wonderfully droll and loopy" and "pitch perfect."
That's only a sampling. Friday at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, Roe's acting ability will be measured multiple times as he plays nine different characters in James Lecesne's "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey." Curtain Call founder Carol Max is directing the one-man show, which will run through Feb. 16.
"It's a play with a good message and it was structured in a way that made it very interesting to me," said Roe, who recently retired after teaching in the Schenectady City School District for 30 years. "It's the kind of show that I want to be in right now as an actor. It's going to make people think a little bit, so it's the kind of play you want to be a part of."
Lecesne is a writer-actor who performed his own play off-Broadway in July of 2015. The title character, Leonard Pelkey, is a 14-year-old from a New Jersey shore town who was killed for being gay. Despite that tragedy, the play is mostly uplifting. The New York Times called Lecesne one of "the most talented solo performers of his [or any] generation," and added that his play "leaves you beaming with joy."
The story is told through the narrator, Detective Chuck DeSantis, who is investigating Pelkey's murder. Roe is DeSantis for much of the play, but there are eight other characters -- friends of Pelkey and various townsfolk -- who he also portrays.
"It's just me in a basic 'guy' costume, khakis and a shirt," said Roe. "Everything's done with a gesture or a turn here and there. The guy who wrote the play is brilliant and he's the same guy who turned a movie short, 'Trevor,' into an Oscar winner. He wrote this play and then turned it into a one-man show for himself. It was the perfect challenge for me at this time in my life."
Roe is a native of Gouverneur, just west of the Adirondack Park and a few miles south of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He went to school at SUNY Potsdam, and after graduation moved to Albany seek a teaching position. In 1985, he auditioned for a part in the Albany Civic Theater production of "The Lady's Not for Burning" and got it.
"I moved to Albany to see if there was something there that I could do with myself, and I can remember walking down Lark Street over to Second Avenue to Albany Civic to audition for a show," said Roe. "I did a lot of shows at Albany Civic, and then when I got the job in Schenectady and moved to Scotia, I started staying closer to home and doing a lot with the Schenectady Civic Players. I love the whole process of the theater. It's a great experience."
Roe isn't saying anything for certain, but hinted this Curtain Call gig might be his last stage performance.
"I'm sort of winding down this whole career of mine, and I'm looking for other options," he said. "I'm recently retired and I love traveling, so I'm going to do some exploring. The theater has been very good to me, but once I get done with this show, I don't know if I'll be driven to keep on doing theater. I'm going to have to try a little something different where I have to stretch and learn something new. But I would never say never."
While Roe has performed at Curtain Call in the past, Max said she's only recently gotten to know him.
"I had heard of him through the theater community for a long time, so I knew he had done a lot of acting, but I never had a personal relationship with him until just a few years ago," she said. "He is a marvelous actor, and he's the one who brought this play to my attention. I read about 600 plays a year and usually when people ask me, 'Have you read this?' nine times out of 10 I say, 'Yes.' This was the one play I hadn't read."
Max ordered the play, read it, and with Roe on the team decided to produce it.
"It's a very important and timely play, with a very important message to it," said Max. "Our society is riddled with hate. You see it in the headlines every day. You don't have to look far. There's all this rhetoric of unkindness. Where is our common courtesy and compassion? This play allows people to leave with a good feeling. They've experienced compassion and they've been reminded to accept people for who they are. It's a great message."
While Max didn't need convincing about "Leonard Pelkey," Roe concedes he may have pulled a fast one on her.
"I ran into her and she said, 'Well, what play do you want to do?'" said Roe. "I told her I would let her know, but she never said anything about a one-man show. I kind of took what she said and ran with it. But I loved the script and I get to play multiple characters. It's a great challenge, and also a very good message to go along with it."
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 1 Jeanne Jugan Lane, Latham
WHEN: Opens Thursday and runs through Feb. 16; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25
MORE INFO: (518) 877-7529 or www.curtaincalltheatre.com