Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sachs based Bakersfield Mist on a true event, which was documented in a 2006 film called Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?. It seems a 73-year-old retired truck driver named Teri Horton living in California purchased a painting for $5 in a thrift shop. A local art teacher happened to see it and thought it might be an original Jackson Pollock. Teri had never heard of Jackson Pollock, hence the title of the documentary, but she soon found out, and she also learned that could mean her thrift store painting was worth a fortune. She set out to have the painting authenticated.
That more or less is the gist of Bakersfield Mist, with Sachs taking the real-life personages and changing them into distinctive characters, giving them interesting backstories that gradually leak out, and crafting the one act (it runs about 75 minutes) as an intense face-off between two people with polar opposite views on life. Teri is now Maude Gutman (Maren), a fifty-something former bartender–former because she was fired, unless her version, which is that she quit, is the truth. Maude lives alone (at the moment) in a Bakersfield, California, trailer park littered with furniture and wall decor that looks like it came from the clearance section of a Goodwill store, all arranged to indicate that Maude is very pleased with the way everything looks in her humble home. Kudos to Carl Schoenborn for the set design and Sarah Bauer for finding or creating a yard-sale's worth of props.
The play introduces us to Maude first and we instantly get our read on her, based not only on her surroundings, but the disheveled pile of blonde hair atop her head, the excessive eye makeup, the tattoo on one of her breasts peeking out from considerable cleavage, and her dangling manner with a cigarette. Sarah Bauer can take another bow, this time for costume designer. Maude's nemesis arrives in the form of a high-class art authenticator named Lionel Percy (Middleton). Even his name is high class! His arrival in the trailer park courtyard goes unseen, but the sounds we hear from out there–praise now goes to sound designer Katherine Horowitz–tell us that a huge commotion is underway. Maude bolts out to deal with the uproar and returns followed by Lionel, making an entrance so funny that I am certain I will never forget it.
Maude desperately wants the painting to be an original Jackson Pollock–not because she has any interest in Pollock, or fine art for that matter. Then it's about the money, right? So it seems at first, but over the course of the meeting between Maude and Lionel, played in real time, we realize–actually, she herself realizes–that there is something more at stake, and that something more is where Sachs gives the play a heart, and makes it about something more than a madcap meeting between polar opposites.
And polar opposites they are. We have Maude constantly pouring herself a drink, slouching in her chair, swearing like a sailor, and saying the first thing that comes into her mind with no filter, while Lionel is uptight, erect, dressed in a well-tailored suit (I would guess such a suit had never before been seen in that particular mobile home), speaking eruditely, and refusing Maude's offer of drinks–also the "nothing special" snack she prepared for the occasion, with "nothing special" being an understatement. He tosses out his tony credentials like candy at a homecoming parade, which land with a thud in clueless Maude's ears. However, she has done some research, thanks to her inquisitive brother, who knows how to search the internet, and she knows a thing or two about Lionel that he means to keep under wraps.
Lionel claims to be purely objective about his read on the paintings authenticity, though it becomes clear that he is quite biased against determining it to be a bona fide Pollock, because of the circumstances under which it appeared, and the lack of education, artistic sensibility, or–to put it bluntly–class exhibited by she who found it. He repeatedly tells Maude that great lost paintings don't just turn up in thrift shops, and she counters that may be true, but that doesn't mean this one didn't (she pleads, "Don't miracles happen sometimes?"). And against the odds, we start to want Maude to have her miracle. Sure, she is louche and self-interested. But she has also been hurt. Shouldn't everyone have their shot at a miracle?
Sachs writes dialogue that is continuously funny, made more so by Jen Maren's and John Middleton's ace delivery. They never speak as if they are telling jokes, but they draw out the humor imbedded in the situation and the two characters' different ways of looking at life. When Lionel explains to Maude the prestige associated with his earlier career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (adding, to be sure she knows, "that's in New York"), he tells her that "In the art world, the Met is like the Vatican," and Maude retorts without missing a beat: "Totally out of touch with reality?" The play also has a scene for which fight director Annie Enneking definitely earns her salary. The action rolls around the Gremlin's entire thrust stage and seems close to spilling into the audience, but I trust every step has been well choreographed.
Bakersfield Mist is continuously funny, but I do have one reservation: one of the funniest scenes in the play–when Lionel finally lowers his guard (to say the least)–feels completely unlikely to happen. One could say the whole premise is unlikely to happen, except that it is, after all, based on a true story. The scene in question, though, pushes beyond what the "true story" likely included. The good news is that I did not think of this until after the scene, in fact, not until after the play, and I advise you to do the same. Suspend your disbelief, for there is too good a time at stake to muck it up worrying about plausibility.
The play's title, by the way, is a reference to an actual painting by Jackson Pollock called Lavender Mist that is mentioned. Does the thrift shop find turn out to be its cousin, to be called Bakersfield Mist in honor of the place it was discovered? I won't spill the beans. I will say that I found the play's ending to be quite satisfying, offering an invitation to consider how Maude and Lionel may each have been changed by their 75 minutes together, an art authentication appointment that teeters a bit into a therapy session.
This is another wonderful production from Gremlin Theatre, under producer Peter Christian Hansen's guiding hand. I strongly recommend it if you are interested in art authentication, crisply funny dialogue and staging, bravura performances, terrific design, or a spin on a hilarious "truth is stranger than fiction" tale. Bakersfield Mist has it all.
Bakersfield Mist runs through April 2, 2023, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $32 ; Seniors: $28 ; Under Age 30 - $16. For tickets, please visit gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Playwright: Stephen Sachs; Director: Angela Timberman; Technical Director, Scenic and Light Designer: Carl Schoenborn; Costume and Prop Designer: Sarah Bauer; Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz; Associate Sound Designer: Aaron Newman; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: Jen Maren (Maude), John Middleton (Lionel).