By Pam Harbaugh
VERO BEACH — From F-bombs to high-brow discourse, Riverside Theatre’s absorbing production of Bakersfield Mist provokes and expands boundaries of what we know about art and each other.
A witty play that captivates from the get-go, Bakersfield Mist brings us into a trailer park home in a forgotten spot on the California map. The home is festooned with an abundance of garage sale treasures and becomes the unlikely setting for a confrontation between its owner, Maude Gutman, an out of work bartender, and Lionel Percy, a supercilious, world-class art expert. He is there to verify Maude’s claim that she has in her possession a long-lost painting by none other than Jackson Pollock, a major figure in abstract expressionism.
In it, playwright Stephen Sachs uses Lionel’s scholarly art-speak and Maude’s limited world-view to explore not only the power of art but also broader meanings of authenticity and delusion. Intellectually charged combat faces off with relatable human emotion and the stage becomes like a Pollock painting itself, every corner filled with skillful impulse and savage chaos.
Upon Lionel’s condescending arrival, he lets loose with a resume that would be the envy of any wannabe Long Island politician. He trumpets his doubts over the painting’s authenticity before he even sees it. Maude responds with F-bombs and shots of whiskey and boasts that the only thing she knows about art is the clown painting she picked up at a garage sale because at least you know what the painting depicts.
Lionel recoils, reminding her that his passion is ferreting out fakes. “It’s easier to say something is fake than prove something is real,” he says. Moreover, he says he always gets a certain “tingle” when standing in front of something authentic.
Of course, the irony here is that the most authentic thing in this trailer is Maude herself.
But Maude has done her homework. As she plays aces tucked up her sleeve, the house of cards upon which Lionel has perched himself tumble. His armor is eventually pierced, and the lonely man inside becomes vulnerable, at which point Maude lays down her hand.
Director Allen D. Cornell, who also serves as scenic designer, leads us through this story with righteous respect for the non-verbal moments. Maude takes her time bringing out the painting in question and setting it up. Lionel takes his time studying every inch of it, front, back and side. (The painting, created by scenic charge artist Amy Brooks, is slightly evocative of Pollock’s actual painting “Lavender Mist.”) These are long moments on stage, but here, they are tasty theatrical scenes where we hang on every nuance of movement, wondering how the character will respond, what happens next. Because of this respect for those moments not spoken — akin to the negative space in a painting (ironically not so much in a Pollock) — the quiet scenes land solidly, emotion and motivation fully intact. We are rapt. The pencil drops and we hear it.
But, oh, this production is served so very well indeed with two sensational portrayals by professional actors Laurie Dawn and Steve Brady. In lesser hands, Maude and Lionel could so easily become two-dimensional caricatures. Instead, Dawn and Brady forge rich and complex portrayals of two people buffeted by life and doing their best to live a life of substance.
Dawn brings a riveting arc to the character of Maude. At first you think this is a forgotten woman, living out her days in a trailer in the high desert of California. But Dawn brings out her grit and many facets — brassy and wounded, marginalized but hopeful, desperate and proud.
Brady is superb in the role of Lionel Percy. He is utterly believable as an art connoisseur. He takes his character from being an insufferable snob to one filled with near animalistic understanding of the artist’s drive. He describes how his life changed when, as a student, he saw Picasso’s groundbreaking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and understood at that point how art might be not just a harbinger of change. Then, as if a madness has a grip on him, he talks about Picasso’s work setting the stage for Pollock to rearrange “the molecular structure of art.”
In the play’s most electrifying moment, Brady brings Lionel to the edge in an erotically charged monologue about Pollock’s painting style. He describes how the canvas became the object of Pollock’s visceral prowess both as an artist and a lover. Lionel ends the speech in ecstasy over the sexually explosive nature of Pollock’s technique.
And that’s where Maude hands him a drink.
Costume designer Anna Christine Hillbery does more than simply dress the characters. She advances theme with her costumes here. While Lionel’s costume is a given — dark suit, white shirt and tie — Maude’s costume is one that Hillbery has the most fun with. There are the pedal pushers, the garish jewelry and too-tight top. But what she does here is use touches of red-orange, a color which slyly weaves its way into the so-called Pollock painting. It subliminally makes us see Maude as an avatar for the painting — chaos incarnate, explosive energy, alive. That’s quite the nice and smart touch.
Sarah Elliott’s lighting design is solid, yes, but also a sly one, meaning you will be thrilled by it at one particular moment in the show (and we’re saying no more).
Certainly, those who love art will find Bakersfield Mist especially appealing. The monologues where Lionel rhapsodizes over art are mouthwatering. But do realize that, like contemporary art itself, this play’s intent is to provoke and expand boundaries. In other words, expect language and a few actions that might set a Thomas Gainsborough heart a-flutter.
But do go see Bakersfield Mist. It is excellent theater.
Runs through Feb. 19 on the Waxlax Stage at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, Fla. Tickets are $65. The show performs 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, select Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.
Pam Harbaugh writes for Vero News. This is a version of her review running in VeroNews.com.