nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
December 2, 2011
Bakersfield Mist is all about contrasts and dualities—and how, when you look at different things in different ways, you arrive at different truths.
And how maybe, if you look hard enough, you arrive at Truth.
The play opens in a kitschy trailer overflowing with tacky knick-knacks, tasteless art, a raft of liquor bottles, and coarse, sloppy Maude Gufman. Maude is nervously expecting a visitor, who arrives in short order. He is her seeming polar opposite. Lionel Percy is cultured, educated, elegant. And he is here to pronounce sentence on Maude.
For in the mare’s nest that is Maude’s home is a jewel. An abstract painting by Jackson Pollack. She explains how at a yard sale she became obsessed with the idea of buying a gag art gift for a friend: “I’m looking through the stack for the god-awfulest one,” and she finds a painting so ugly, it’s irresistible. The lady wants five dollars; Maude convinces her to take three, because who else would give her that much for a painting that ugly?
And so she brings it home. And slowly she comes to love and respect it.
Now, Lionel Percy, art historian, professor, connoisseur, polyglot, and self-proclaimed “fake-buster,” has come to give his opinion of its authenticity.
And therein lies the heart of the play. Through taut, frequently barbed, exchanges, insightful, frequently mournful, monologues, and one long speech that approaches being a mini-master course on the genius of Jackson Pollack, playwright Stephen Sachs weaves his characters and our sympathies back and forth, in and out. In the process, he addresses pivotal issues: What is art? What is beauty? And who invests either with meaning or value?
John FitzGibbon, brilliant earlier this season at New Jersey Rep as Erich Maria Remarque in Puma, does not disappoint here. Percy is, in many ways, easy to dislike: he is arrogant, snobby, and intolerant. But how he glows when he talks of Pollack! There is a similar incandescence that lights up Maude on the same topic, and Linda S. Nelson gives depth and dignity to this earthy, vulgar woman. (Perhaps too much: I had trouble believing that this resilient fighter could ever have struggled with issues of self-worth during decades with an abusive husband.)
As an essentially dialogue-driven, two-character play, the piece is not easy to stage, and I’m not sure that the super-realistic, overcrowded set by Jessica Parks, whose designs are usually flawless, works all that well. For one thing, it makes for a lot of seemingly needless business and motion as objects are moved here and there, particularly during a big upset late in the play. It risks becoming distracting. Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes are on target, as is Jill Nagle’s reliable lighting design.
Art isn’t easy, as Stephen Sondheim has it in Sunday in the Park with George. But it is endlessly fascinating, as are the myriad ways in which we as individuals connect with it. In this regard, Bakersfield Mist gives much food for thought.