The elite and what writer H.L. Mencken called “the booboisie” clash over what is a genuine masterpiece and the higher purpose of art in Stephen Sach’s uproarious and sneakily thoughtful play Bakersfield Mist.
Director John Vreeke lets actors Donna Migliaccio and Michael Russotto soar in unexpected directions and the subject matter rise to lofty heights, while keeping the play rooted in rawhide realism. No easy feat, but Vreeke’s production at Olney balances the erudite and earthy.
The reality of the setting is conveyed by Daniel Ettinger’s sliced-open, slice-of-life trailer set, which gives the audiences a two-sided, neighborly view of the kitsch-cluttered double-wide owned by Maude Gutman (Donna Migliaccio), a former bartender in Bakersfield who’s on a first-name basis with Jack Daniels.
Maude may be a rough around the edges, but she’s no dummy. She’s made a second career of foraging dumpsters, yard sales and thrift stores for “finds” and after all these years her eye has turned up what she believes is a Jackson Pollock painting.
Based on the true story of Teri Horton, who didn’t know Jackson Pollock from fried pollock until she bought a splatter painting in a thrift shop and embarked on a quest to prove its legitimacy, Bakersfield Mist delves into the world of art forgeries, but it also touches on what’s real and what’s fake in ourselves as we search for authenticity in our own lives.
Maude has enlisted the services of esteemed art curator Lionel Percy (Michael Russotto), who once was the self-proclaimed “pope” of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he likened to a Vatican dedicated to the proper worship of art.
Lionel’s glory days as director of the Met are long past, but he now works for a tony foundation dedicated to art research. He arrives by limo to Maude’s trailer, ripe with hauteur as he inspects his surroundings and prepares to give his famous, supposedly infallible “blink” to the canvas.
His conclusion is that it is not a Pollock. Why? Because it left him feeling hollow, unmoved—not like the feeling of frenzied movement and inchoate emotion he undergoes with the real thing, which he describes in an orgiastic, ecstatic monologue that is one of the highlights of the play.
The more he tries to convince Maude it is a forgery, the more she wants him to believe as she does—that it is a real, undiscovered Jackson Pollock. She has evidence to prove her case, but more than that she thinks it is a masterpiece because it moved her. She has become lost in the painting and believes that it found her instead of the other way around. That’s a big deal for someone whose taste in art runs to clown paintings.
Is that art—the unbound feeling you get when you look at a painting or a work of art and feel lost and then found and then experience an almost sacred duty to protect it?
Bakersfield Mist explores the nature of art and why we need it in our lives. But it also speaks to the real thing deep inside us, what Maude beautifully expresses when she describes the experience of having a child: “It’s like your heart is outside of you walking around.”
closes June 19, 2016
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Lionel would probably say the same thing about a work of art—it makes the invisible, indescribable visible. Ironic that a painting is what brings them together.
The interesting thing about the play is the contrast between Maude and Lionel, which makes for rich comic fodder but also points out their approach to life. Lionel has made his life and career a work of art, a statement about beauty and aesthetics and Russotto ideally captures the carefully-curated façade of Lionel’s self-made creation.
Maude, on the other hand, is a piece of work. Migliaccio portrays the hard-drinking, free-wheeling aspects of Maude’s personality, but also the pain and anger underneath the brassy bravado. Why shouldn’t Maude have hope? Why shouldn’t she be the lucky one for once?
As carried aloft as you get by the conflict and convincing between Maude and Lionel, there are some aspects of the play that rankle. The audience is required to take some large leaps of faith that strain credulity. How exactly did Maude go from someone willing to shoot up the painting with bullets to an acolyte to Pollock’s genius.
Is it really not about the money for Maude? It’s not that she has hit the jackpot both financially and in the realm of cultural significance but instead that the painting has spoken to her and she has become its protector? That change from drunk, depressed junk collector to shining defender of art just doesn’t wash. And Maude’s drinking and crude palaver are used for laughs, but her self-destructiveness is truly disturbing.
Nor does Lionel’s last remark to Maude ring true as he flies out the door like winged Mercury. Again, there is no evidence for his eleventh-hour appraisal, so in a sense the play becomes guilty of emotional forgery as well.
Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs . Directed by John Vreeke . Featuring: Donna Migliaccio, Michael Russotto Costume Designer: Seth Gilbert . Scenic Designer: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Designer: Colin K. Bills . Sound Designer: Chris Baine. Dramaturg: Alexandra Ley . Production Stage Manager: Trevor Riley . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.