Los Angeles Theater Review: BAKERSFIELD MIST (Fountain Theatre)

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by Harvey Perr on June 25, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


What if you were an alcoholic ex-bartender who lived in a mobile home in a trailer park in Bakersfield that was furnished with junk bought from rummage sales and who found, in the back of someone’s garage, a painting that you didn’t really like, but, after all, at $3.00, it seems a no-brainer not to buy it, even if all you wanted to do with it — after getting drunk with your best friend — is to shoot it full of holes? And what if, in a yard sale of your own, the local art teacher came upon it and told you it was a Jackson Pollock?

Bakersfield Mist at the Fountain TheatreWell, this particular “what if” is actually based on a true incident; but what really happened is far less significant than what Stephen Sachs has imagined might have happened. It is the premise of his play Bakersfield Mist, and a sturdy premise it turns out to be. Maude Gutman, despite an endlessly cheerful personality, is slipping into a despair that only a bottle of Scotch seems to keep at bay. Her only hope — and the only logical step towards her personal salvation — is that the painting she bought is authentic, and that its value would give Maude the money that would change her life once and for all, and forever.

And so, into Maude’s junk-filled trailer comes Lionel Percy, an expert from New York’s stuffy art world. Percy is one of those guys who takes one look at Maude’s surroundings and suggests that, even if the painting he is about to examine is genuine, he will look down his nose at it, because the idea of Maude Gutman and Jackson Pollock sharing the same space chills his blood (if, indeed, his blood hasn’t already been put into deep refrigeration).

Bakersfield Mist at the Fountain TheatreWill there be a seismic clash of personalities between Maude and Lionel? There will, of course, but not before we have watched one of the breeziest comedies I’ve laughed my way through in far too long a time, and certainly not before we have seen some of the most trenchant observations on the nature of what art is and what its real value is. But its commentary on art is second to its even stronger reflections on class. And it all matters less than the human drama that brings Maude and Lionel to a deeper understanding of each other and of themselves. The writing is consistently witty and yet, in its exploration of the two characters, warm; even wise.

Sachs, in his direction, gets every bit of pathos out of his play without ever overlooking the comic possibilities that build and build until we are helpless with laughter. He owes a lot to his actors, the husband-and-wife team of Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, who take the material and run with it. O’Hara, looking like a deranged Shirley MacLaine, plays the shifting moods of Maude’s dilemma as a classic musician might play around with changes in pace, speeding up here and slowing down there, coming up, finally, with a fully innovative interpretation of the score. Bakersfield Mist at the Fountain TheatreThere is a ferocity in Maude that is as powerful as her surface kindliness, and O’Hara locates it and drives it home. She may be trailer trash, but you might have to reconsider your idea of trailer trash after seeing O’Hara, who projects Maude’s inherent nobility every bit as fully as she makes flesh out of the damaged goods before us. Ullett, in contrast, is dry and urbane, and who, even when tipsy, maintains his delicate restraint; but he has a wonderfully delirious monologue, about his first romance with the rigors and pleasures of art, which he brings manically and triumphantly to life.

Jeff McLaughlin’s set design is a masterpiece of crumminess; its attention to detail is splendid and the found objects that inhabit his set couldn’t be more perfect.

This is entertainment, not art (despite the fact that Art is at the heart of its theme), but it is entertainment at its simplest and best. There are times when a reviewer sees a play and all he wants to say is, hey folks, just go, take my word for it, you’re going to have a great time, this is just plain good writing, handled beautifully, and acted by two pros who should not be forgotten when awards time comes around.  Bakersfield Mist is a delight.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Ed Krieger

Bakersfield Mist
scheduled to close July 31

for tickets, visit http://www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html


Oliver Burke June 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm

This is a fabulous play. Totally entertaining. I would like to add to the review that I have never watched a legitimate play where the audience actually applauds an actor’s speech in the middle of the play. When Nick Ullett goes into his monologue about his experience with Jackson Pollack, he starts as though he is a lecturer; by the time he finishes the audience is literally cheering him. It is a theatrical moment not to be missed.
Bakersfield Mist is a real treat.

Teri Horton July 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I can hardly stand the waiting time, when through the generosity of Mr. Sachs I will be his guest to see the play Sunday 2:00pm July 31st.
I wonder if Maude is as trashy mouth as I have been known to be. I was in a group of art experts in New York and I was discussing this “mystical feeling”
that art experts claim comes over them in their decision is it or isn’t it authentic. None had a reasonable explanation which pissed me off, so I ask them if it was anything like a bowel movement or perhaps a climax. Needless to say, they would’nt answer my question.
Cheers, Teri aka Teri Horton….Costa Mesa, Ca.

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