Bakersfield Mist: mediocre script, strong production

Bakersfield Mist is about a painting that Jackson Pollock might have created.

Nicola Cavendish’s role in Bakersfield Mist might have been custom-tailored for her. She looks fantastic in it

Bakersfield Mist is raucously funny sometimes and even moving in moments, but the script isn’t as smart as it pretends to be.

LA playwright Stephen Sachs drew inspiration for Bakersfield Mist from real-life characters and events. The stakes are high. In the early 1990s, a retired long-haul truck driver named Teri Horton bought a big painting as a gag present for a depressed friend. She found it in a thrift store in San Bernardino and paid five bucks for it, having talked the owner down from eight. Her friend thought the painting was ugly and she couldn’t get it into her trailer anyway, so Horton tried to hawk the canvas at a garage sale. That’s when a local art teacher told her she might have a Jackson Pollock on her hands. Horton’s response, “Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?”, inspired the title of the 2006 documentary made about her adventure, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? The trucker quickly found out who Pollock was. She also discovered that, if her “Pollock” was authentic, her five-dollar purchase could be worth fifty million.

In Sachs’s script, Maude Gutman, the Horton character, receives a potentially life-changing visit in her trailer park from Lionel Percy, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whom she has hired to gauge the authenticity of her find. Percy is based on Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Met who evaluates the painting in the documentary, although he had never done so previously.

Maude isn’t the kind of client Lionel is used to dealing with. “Life is like sex,” she declares, “You either lie back and get fucked, or you get on top and ride the hell out of it.” Lionel makes zero effort to conceal his disdain. When Maude says, “You must have better things to do,” he replies, “You have no idea.” Sachs is making a point about class and, to a lesser extent, about gender: “Who listens to me, right? Nobody,” Maude complains. But Sachs presents the class dynamic in simplistic terms: Maude offers Lionel wiener rolls with or without Velveeta, and he is cartoonishly snooty as he sneers, “New York would never approve of the painting or of you.” The drawing of both characters gains some nuance as the story unfolds, but the fundamental terms of the exchange are crude. They are also heavily weighted in Maude’s favour, which gets dull. And Lionel’s method of assessment never accumulates any credible weight—he just blinks and forms an opinion—so the discussion about authenticity floats vacantly.

In the most annoying passage in the play, Lionel throws himself into a monologue in which he almost literally orgasms as he describes Pollock metaphorically making love to his canvases. To me, this is ridiculously reductive. If you want to see a compelling imagining of Pollock’s artistic process, watch Ed Harris’s performance in the 2000 film Pollock. It’s not about anybody coming in his pants.

Fortunately, director Roy Surette’s production of Bakersfield Mist has a lot going for it.

The show starts even before the lights go up: when you walk into the theatre, Pam Johnson’s stunner of a set greets you. There’s a fantastic vivacity to Maude’s trailer, which is stuffed with junk that’s she’s scored in thrift shops and from dumpster diving. She has adorned it with paper garlands, decorative beer trays, and butterfly decals. On the deck, there’s a string of lobster lights. And Johnson puts a big, bold, flat frame around the whole thing that looks like the outline of an Airstream. It’s fantastic.

At this point, it would probably be a good idea to mention that Nicola Cavendish is playing Maude. The role might as well have been written for her. Cavendish has a heart the size of the Okanagan and she specializes in playing oppressed but charismatically defiant women, such as the title character in Shirley Valentine. Cavendish is not only perfectly cast here, she is flat-out perfect. She finds every colour and every shading in Maude’s guile, her wit, her self-awareness, and her tattered heart. In one of the most effectively written passages in the script and one of the most movingly performed in this production, Maude talks about seeing her troubled son in the purported Pollock: “There was a storm inside that boy. Like that painting. Like that.”

To his enormous credit, Jonathon Munro not only holds his own on-stage with Cavendish, which is no mean feat, he also manages to make it through the orgasmic monologue with his dignity intact. Lionel isn’t written as sympathetically as Maude is, but this play needs two strong actors and this production has them.

If only Bakersfield Mist were more subtle and ambitious. Instead, it plods along, self-consciously exploring its themes of fakery, authenticity and judgment. Near the end of the play, Lionel tells Maude, “I underestimated you. My first impression of you was completely inaccurate.” We know, Lionel. We know.

BAKERSFIELD MIST By Stephen Sachs. Directed by Roy Surette. An Arts Club Production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Friday October 28. Continues until November 20.

Get tickets at 604-687-1644 or go to http://artsclub.com/tickets/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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