When is a paint splatter a reason to break out the turpentine — and when is it a gloppy line to $100 million? Bakersfield Mist
, the artfully comedic play by Stephen Sachs, raises a discerning monocle on the contemporary art world, attempting to separate the con from connoisseurship. Presented by the Footlight Players, this deceptively canny play mashes high culture with the lowbrow, resulting in plenty of choice notions over which to muse, mull, and make merry.
In a slim 80 minutes with an equally trim cast of two, Bakersfield Mist
brandishes its wry indictment of the ways in which we both confer and deny meaning in works of art. At the same time, it points to how we apply the same elitist evaluation of the individuals deemed fitting to trade in art. The play is inspired by the real-life account of a 73-year-old truck driver by the name of Teri Horton, who purchased a painting for a few dollars in a thrift store. Horton claimed she had in fact scooped up an unknown work by Jackson Pollock, the abstract impressionist who forever changed the art form through his masterful application of deft drips and splatters. Horton has spent countless hours since trying to prove the painting’s authenticity.
Rather than the soigne trappings of New York, however, this art-centric story takes place in a galaxy far, far away from white-walled gallery spaces and wine-sipping openings. We find ourselves instead in a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, home to the ticky-tacky, knick-knack-packed trailer of Maude Gutman (Lorilyn Harper), a chain-smoking, Jack-swilling former bartender whose vocabulary is a frenetic splatter of prattle and profanity. In an outburst of howling dogs outside, enters Lionel Percy (Jimmy Flannery), a perceptibly peevish suit that visits Maude’s home in a cloud of unchecked disdain. He has come to officially assess the authenticity of the painting that Maude claims is a Pollock, a judgment that will determine whether she owns a masterpiece or, by her own estimation, the ugliest painting she has ever seen.
However sneering Lionel may be, Maude remains unfazed by her guest’s unsubtle attempts to denigrate her way of life. She garrulously passes out booze and wieners, turning a deaf ear to his terse barbs. Maude is equally undaunted when he begins to deride her assertion that she has plucked a Pollock from a pile of thrift store rubble. When she finally displays the painting, Lionel’s appraisal of the work exposes far more about the machinations of arts scholarship than meets the expert eye. It is clear that pedigree and provenance, to borrow an appraiser’s term, are as much of the criteria involved in deeming greatness as the work itself is. For Lionel, the prospect of a Pollock that comes to him by way of trailer park trade represents sufficient grounds to send it right back to the thrift store.
As Lionel and Maude go round and round, both begin to reveal more and more about themselves, with perceptions ever shifting on just who is authentic and who is the fraud. The exchange then takes on more meaning still, relating art to a religious experience reliant primarily on belief. Maude’s investment in the painting is far more than a monetary one. For her, its authenticity provides crucial meaning to her hardscrabble, insignificant life. Paradoxically, this only further compels Lionel to denial. As they spar and snipe, connect and disconnect, we see successive splashes of humanity and heartlessness, snobbery and sympathy, with the truth an elusive target. For this odd couple, arriving at truth becomes as frenetic and charged as a Pollock canvas.
To bring all this to light, Bakersfield Mist
lays solely in the hands of its two actors. As Maude and Lionel, both Lorilyn Harper and Jimmy Flannery more than hold their own. Harper’s Maude is at turns roughhewn and yearning, equally authentic when playing the fool or revealing Maude’s savvier side. Flannery’s brittle Lionel parcels out fleeting glimpses of the wide-eyed art lover that the fancy pants once was — that is, before his focus fixed on his own fragile standing in the field. In a show-stopping monologue, Flannery performs a near-interpretive dance of personal ecstasy to capture Pollock’s creative process, building up to writhing cathartic creative release, and is just as humorously hot and bothered as my characterization suggests.
Shout outs are in order for Robin Burke’s well-paced, engaging direction, which makes full, dynamic use of every déclassé corner of Maude’s digs. Speaking of which, it is a splendidly executed eyesore of a set, riddled with clown paintings and other spot-on claptrap that Maude has dragged home. All in all, there is impressive method to the blessed mess in Bakersfield Mist
, which works to unveil today’s misguided approach to visual arts. For art lovers and egalitarians alike, it is worth taking in — and taking to heart.