Who decides what is real? Who gets to determine the worth of something? Or someone, for that matter? These are some of the questions lying at the heart of Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist, onstage at the Ojai Art Center Theater through May 27.
Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist is about Maude (the glowing Lee Ann Manley), a 50-something unemployed bartender who pays a few bucks for a painting at a thrift store to give as a gag gift to a friend. Thanks but no thanks, her friend says. Maude doesn’t want the thing either. To her it looks like some kind of joke — all squiggly lines and splatters of paint. Nothing like the clown painting that holds pride of place on the wall in her trailer. Maude tries to unload the painting at a garage sale, where an art teacher tells her she might have a Jackson Pollock on her hands. Maude has no idea who Pollock is, but she knows enough to call in an expert.
In walks Lionel, a renowned connoisseur (his favorite word) from New York. He takes one brief, annoyed look at the painting and announces it’s a fake. He doesn’t hold Maude in much esteem, either. Maude refuses to accept his decision and the two enter into a verbal and physical pas de deux that wrestles with the questions of authenticity and value — not just of art, but, more importantly, of people.
The wonderful Paul Sulzman plays Lionel with a deft hand on an emotional thermostat that runs from ice-cold snobbery to blistering passion. Manley fully embodies Maude as a woman with a complicated spirit and a battered heart. She’s like a fighter who has been knocked down so many times but refuses to stay on the mat. Maude needs the painting to be real, not so much for the fortune it would bring her, but because she needs something real to hold on to.
Directed with great heart and skill by Susan Kelejian, Bakersfield Mist is a two-person, one-set drama without an intermission. The tension builds without reprieve until the last word is spoken and the final toast is raised.
Actually, there are other characters. One is the painting itself. Local artists Vonder Gray, Kenny Dahle, Gary Best and Clay White each painted a “lost Pollock” that will be featured on a different weekend. (The paintings will be auctioned off at the end of the play’s run.) Another character is the set, designed by Steve Mitchell, constructed by Mitchell and Robert Decker, dressed by Kitty Bartholomew and lit by Larry Blumenthal. Together they have created an authentically outfitted and weathered trailer. It’s Maude’s whole world and it shows all her pain and slog disguised as thrift-shop kitsch.
Maude provides some impressive evidence to prove that her painting is the real thing, but will Lionel be swayed or will he cling to the cognoscenti’s deference to provenance? Can a Pollock be a Pollock if it was bought at a thrift store? The play asks, “What makes art?” But the more important question we are left to ponder is, when it comes to flesh and blood, are we all worth the same?
Bakersfield Mist through May 27 at The Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai. For tickets and more information, call 640-8797 or visit www.ojaiact.org.