In 1992, a retired truck driver named Teri Horton paid five dollars for a painting from a southern California thrift store to give as a gag gift to a friend. An incomprehensible series of dots, blotches and streaks, her friend refused her gift and Horton ending up trying to unload the gangly canvas at a yard sale. It caught the eye of a local high school art teacher who let her know she just might be in possession of a genuine Jackson Pollock painting worth millions. Horton’s response is unprintable, but it was the beginning of a decades-long quest to determine the authenticity of the painting and its true value.
That’s the backstory to Bakersfield Mist, playwright Stephen Sachs’s fictionalized take on Horton’s quest running now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. Set in a Bakersfield trailer park, it’s a two-character comedy of desperation that imagines the meeting between ex-bartender Maude Gutman (played by Sandra Ish at her blowsy best) and art connoisseur Lionel Percy (a prickly Mike Pavone.) Gutman has scraped enough money together to hire Percy to render his professional opinion on the work in question. As dismissive of Gutman as he is of the painting, what follows is an 80-minute, bourbon-soaked battle of wits between the two that raises issues of class, culture, personal validation and authenticity that go beyond the determination of the status of a single work of art.
Sachs packs a lot into 80 minutes and falters a bit when he veers into maudlinism. At its core, the script is a neo-Neil Simon Odd Couple with Gutman’s ‘Oscar’ clashing with Percy’s ‘Felix’, albeit with a bit more depth and a lot more adult humor and language. Ish and Pavone are equally matched talents and equally matched adversaries, each seeking their own validation. For reasons greater than simply the money at stake, Gutman needs the painting to be genuine. Percy has his own issues in needing his decision to be right.
Co-directors Argo Thompson and Kimberly Kalember set Ish and Pavone loose on a nicely detailed set (also by Thompson) that perfectly captures the stock ambiance of a mobile home. From its fake wood paneling to its omnipresent collection of shot glasses to a well-worn recliner, the set almost becomes a third character in the play, and maybe even a fourth if you include the painting itself.
Bakersfield Mist uses the inhabitants of an art museum and a trailer park as a clever means of examining the classic blue collar/white collar (or, if you prefer, red state/blue state) divide and, more interestingly, the current hot-button topic of authenticity. Should a leader in a field calling something ‘fake’ overrule scientific evidence to the contrary?
“Bakersfield Mist” plays at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Studio Theatre in the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts through December 2nd with evening performances at 8pm with some additional weekend performances at 2 or 5pm.
For specific show dates and times, go to leftedgetheatre.com