Theater Review: Bakersfield Mist

By: 
Ben Miles
Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett in Bakersfield Mist

Pickles and ice cream, oil and water, drinking and driving are but a few examples of mis-combinations – entities or activities that are best left separate. Another coupling that in reality should’ve been avoided is that of an unemployed bartender, who resides in a Bakersfield trailer park, with a supercilious art scholar from Manhattan. But that’s exactly what happens in Stephen Sachs’ world premier play, Bakersfield Mist (at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre, through Jan. 30). And what a pleasing surprise of a play it turns out to be.

“Mist” is inspired by true events surrounding an Orange County woman who claimed to have purchased an “unknown” Jackson Pollock painting for five dollars; she’d “discovered” it in a San Bernardino second hand shop. Sachs transfers the story to California’s lower San Joaquin Valley. And, instead of the actual five dollar purchase price that took place, Sachs’ protagonist, middle-age Maude Gutman, buys the piece from its unaware owner only subsequent to bartering the price down to three dollars.

Also directed by Sachs, Bakersfield Mist is a 75-minute (intermission-less) examination of the meaning of art. Nevertheless, “Mist” is loaded with conflict and weighted with drama. But it’s a comedy, too. Unexpectedly and uproariously there’s a knife fight, dangerous amounts of liquor is consumed and there’s plenty of profanity.

Jenny O’Hara plays Maude with genuineness and earthiness that is endearing and, truth be told, slightly repellent. Maude is full of heart, and evokes our sympathies. Simultaneously, however, her neediness and desperation are vaguely repugnant. O’Hara imbues Maude with shade and shadow, dimension and depth. What’s more, O’Hara’s portrayal is hilarious. To witness Maude attempting to seduce a haughty East Coast connoisseur of art is a work of comedic art.

In making Maude into as funny a character as she is, O’Hara is greatly assisted by Nick Ullett as Lionel Percy – the putative Pollock expert. He arrives to authenticate Maude’s questionable claim to “a Pollock.” Ullett’s Lionel is a stuffy characterization that’s entirely credible. We watch him in curious awe, attempting to understand how such a person operates. Amazingly, and after a well delivered monologue – that drew a cheer from the audience at the reviewed performance – we do indeed come to empathize with Lionel.

Not only does “Mist” dare crack open such age-old conundrums as “What is art?” it also refreshingly and amusingly challenges expertise. “What,” Maude queries, “makes you an authority.” Good question, after all.

Jeffrey McLaughlin’s set design, along with Bill E. Kickbush’s lighting, Shon LaBlanc’s costumes and Peter Bayne’s sound engineering, add to the feel of rough and real that’s on display here. If Jackson Pollock wrote a play, it might be something like Bakersfield Mist.

Interestingly, the two players, O’Hara and Ullett, are a married couple in real-life. To witness these two journeyman actors give his-and-her, tit-for-tat performances is a rare treat that for theater aficionados, ought not to be missed.

“Bakersfield Mist” continues at The Fountain Theatre – 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles – through Jan. 30. Show times are Thursday through Friday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 663-1525. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.FountainTheatre.com.

ben@beachcomber.news

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