Is something valuable because you love it or do you love it because it is valuable? That is just one of the many thought provoking issues brought up in CV REP’s wonderful production of Stephen Sachs’ play, BAKERSFIELD MIST.
Maude Gutman lives in a trailer in Bakersfield, CA. She drinks too much, curses like a drunken sailor and, oh yes, has in her possession what she believes to be a genuine Jackson Pollack which she found in a thrift shop for just a few dollars. So to have proof of its genuineness, she manages to get the art expert Lionel Percy, himself once the head of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, to fly out to the West Coast to render his judgement of the painting’s authenticity. Upon his arrival, it is clear that these two people, at least on the surface, have absolutely nothing at all in common. But it doesn’t take long, or too many shots of alcohol, to start digging below their carefully crafted exteriors to see just how much in common these two somewhat wounded people actually do.
The real-or-not arguments take a couple of twists and turns along the way and I won’t delve into them any further except to say that they raise a number of interesting and intriguing questions, some of which I found myself discussing for several hours after leaving the theatre. Do we consider certain paintings and sculptures fine art because we recognize it to be so ourselves or because we are told that the artist’s work falls into that category? How much are our opinions influenced by those of others? How much bias in one direction or the other does context and environment create? Can we even allow the possibility that a crude and uneducated woman (though she is anything but stupid) could recognize a work by a Master Artist like Pollack as she rummages through a thrift store? Is there a possibility that just because someone is deemed an expert, they can be way off the mark in recognizing authenticity especially when viewed not in the fashionable walls of New York’s Upper East Side but in a milieu more suited to paintings of Elvis on black velvet? Do all our accomplishments add up to naught if we make a heartfelt but wrong decision? Like I said, the play touches on many issues of class and privilege, the haves and the have-nots and just how close and easy it is for humans to swing from one side of the pendulum to the other,
The play is a stellar production all around. Under Ron Celona’s excellently paced direction, Stephanie Erb and Arthur Hacket as Maude and Lionel respectively, give strong performances. As the mask each has chosen to wear in the world begins to melt away with every successive shot of alcohol, their passions, pride and vulnerabilities come floating up to the surface in two beautifully nuanced performances. Jimmy Cuomo’s set, a cutaway of Maude’s trailer, evokes the crampedness and clutter of many a mobile home while giving the actors plenty of space in which to work and is beautifully lit by Moira Wilkie Whitaker. The costumes by Frank Cazares perfectly show the apparent divide that exists between the expert from the city and the comparatively rural woman hoping to add some much needed validation to her life.
One more quick note. As implausible as the events in this play may seem, they are actually based on real events, proving once again that truth can be indeed stranger than fiction.
BAKERSFIELD MIST runs through Nov. 21, 2021 at the CV REP. For more information or tickets visit their website, CVrep.org, or call them at 760-296-2966.
Photos by Jim Cox