April 18, 2018

A Mysterious Painting Causes Conflict in “Bakersfield Mist”; Pegasus Theatre Project Presents Stephen Sachs’s Tragicomedy

BAKERSFIELD MIST: Performances are underway for Pegasus Theatre Project’s production of “Bakersfield Mist.” Directed by Peter Bisgaier, the play runs through April 22 at the West Windsor Arts Center. Maude (Donne Petito, left) and Lionel (Rupert Hinton) have a heated discussion about the authenticity of a painting. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Bakersfield Mist is a tragicomedy in which Maude Gutman, an unemployed bartender, has purchased a painting from a thrift store. She believes that her acquisition is a Jackson Pollack masterpiece worth millions of dollars; the initial conflict arises when Lionel Percy, a haughty art expert, doubts the painting’s authenticity.

Partly inspired by a true story, Bakersfield Mist derives its title from a Jackson Pollack painting, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). To create the work, Pollack laid a canvas on the floor of his studio; “using house paint, he dripped, poured, and flung pigment from loaded brushes and sticks while walking around it,” notes the website for the National Gallery of Art. “Like an ancient cave painter, [Pollack] ‘signed’ Lavender Mist in the upper left corner and at the top of the canvas with his handprints.”

The characters’ topic of conversation alternates between art and their lives, but their relationship is always fraught with tension. The play is an edgy duet in which the participants spend much of their encounters trading barbs; “Please, be a person,” they entreat each other at different points.

Written by Stephen Sachs, Bakersfield Mist is being presented by the Pegasus Theatre Project. Instead of a traditional auditorium, chairs have been set up in the gallery of the West Windsor Arts Center. Like Art, a comedy that Pegasus presented last year, Bakersfield Mist is aptly suited to this venue.

Maude is already onstage as the audience enters the gallery. She disposes of trash, which includes several beer bottles, and studies a mysterious piece of paper. She sits in the living room of her trailer and plays solitaire; the scowl on her face suggests annoyance. She appears to play again, hoping for better luck. This pre-curtain tableau establishes both the setting and Maude’s character. It also offers a work of three-dimensional, living art to join the other pieces in the gallery.

Because the entire play is set in Maude’s mobile home, scenic designer Rachel Langely has been able to furnish an elaborately detailed set. Maude’s ironing board serves as a makeshift bar; on it has been set a bottle of whiskey and some small plastic cups. Her television sits on the floor. Shelves are filled with pottery that she has bought second-hand — or pulled out of the trash. Outside, wind chimes made out of beer bottles hang from her wall; they will be crucial to the story.

The paintings with which Maude has decorated her trailer depict dogs playing poker, and a stuffed dog occupies her sofa. As the play begins, however, we realize that this affinity for dogs does not extend to real ones. With exasperation she attempts to chase her neighbor’s barking dogs away, so that they do not scare her visitor: Lionel.

Lionel has flown to Bakersfield, California on a private jet provided by “the foundation,” to determine whether the painting Maude purchased really was painted by Jackson Pollack. The tension between the characters is immediately established by their body language and comportment. Maude attempts to ingratiate herself with Lionel; she offers him refreshments and flirts with him, invading his personal space. Lionel protectively clutches his briefcase.

Pegasus artistic directors Jennifer Nasta Zefutie and Peter Bisgaier state this in the program: “This season, we are focusing on a single theme — Finding Connection. Given the recent political climate and the divisiveness that pervades society, Pegasus will explore how we establish a human connection and meaningfully engage with others who have vastly different values, beliefs, and lifestyles.”

Clearly Bakersfield Mist fits this mission. From the beginning of Maude’s meeting with Lionel, the conflict of class and culture is obvious. Lionel is patronizing: “You are certainly not the standard collector I typically encounter,” he remarks. Elsewhere he tells her, “my evaluation is not of you,” though this is disingenuous.

He explains the agreement that is detailed on a form he needs Maude to sign. After examining the painting to determine whether it was painted by Pollack, he will check “yes” or “no.” Maude states her belief that the painting is authentic; Lionel tartly expresses his determination to judge that for himself.

Maude reveals that as a joke she bought the “the ugliest” painting for three dollars, as a humorous birthday gift that was refused by the recipient. When Maude attempted to sell it at a yard sale, a high school art teacher observed the painting’s similarity to Pollack’s work.

Upon viewing the piece, however, Lionel quickly declares it a forgery with “no artistic soul.” Maude angrily questions his decision. She states that she read about him online, and she knows that he is capable of making a mistake.

Both Maude and Lionel have a stormy past that includes getting fired from a previous job. It is through discovering this that these “vastly different” people are able to find a connection, however tenuous or brief.

Maude is separated from her husband, who was abusive to her and to her son. She confesses that she was fired from her job as a bartender because she tried to commit suicide.

Lionel reveals that he was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he describes as “the Vatican” of the art world. He styles himself “the Pope,” but he was fired for recommending that the museum purchase an ancient Greek statue that may have been inauthentic. He further admits that his own marriage ended in divorce.

The production is marked by subtle, but crucial, choices. As Maude and Lionel share cups of whiskey and commiserate about their lives, Lionel removes his glasses — promptly putting them back on when Maude attempts to seduce him into reconsidering his appraisal of the painting.

Further exploring the theme of art appreciation as religion, Lionel kneels in reverence when he discusses Pollack’s work. If the primary source of conflict between Lionel and Maude is their lifestyles and aesthetic tastes, then another is the tension between religion and science. While Lionel is “the Pope” of the art world, Maude attempts to impress him with forensic evidence.

One of her favorite shows is Law & Order, which she watches with a friend who is a former detective. She tells Lionel that this friend discovered a fingerprint on the painting, and this fingerprint matches one that is visible — through magnification of a photograph on a museum website — on one of Pollack’s works.

Maude begs Lionel to change his answer, as this is her “last chance” after being rejected by other art experts. As with her games of solitaire, she is determined to persist until she is satisfied with the outcome.

Lionel is incensed that she has tried to influence his decision, however, and he refuses to change it. Eventually we learn that Maude’s son was killed while driving drunk. We also discover that the piece of paper she was reading contained a “no questions asked” offer to buy the painting for two million dollars. Lionel urges Maude to accept this offer.

As an actor who has appeared in previous Pegasus productions, director Peter Bisgaier is skilled at eliciting strong, nuanced performances from his cast. Donne Petito lets Maude put all of her metaphoric cards on the table; her feelings and wishes always are on display, though she is manipulative. By contrast, Rupert Hinton’s Lionel attempts to contain his emotions — until they erupt.

Befitting Maude’s character, costume designer Chrissy Johnston has outfitted her with a hodgepodge of clothes. A flowery shirt, resembling her sofa, is worn over a t-shirt on which the American flag is printed. This is a marked contrast to Lionel’s conservative grey suit.

That grey suit evokes another painting. On several occasions, Lionel identifies himself as a “connoisseur” of art. In a 1962 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, titled “The Connoisseur,” a middle-aged man in a grey suit views a work of art that Rockwell painted in imitation of Pollack’s abstract style. Lionel often stands with his hands behind his back, as does the critic in Rockwell’s painting.

The play received its world premiere in 2011, at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, where Sachs is a co-artistic director. Subsequent productions have been at the New Jersey Repertory Company, Boston’s New Repertory Theatre, and the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End.

Bakersfield Mist is an entertaining,   occasionally upsetting, character study. Sachs’ dialogue is witty, and he is able to hold the audience’s attention by bouncing his protagonists’ personalities off of each other. The plot centers on the questionable authenticity of a painting, but there should be no question that audiences will be entertained by this first-rate production of Sachs’s engaging script.

Presented by the Pegasus Theatre Project, “Bakersfield Mist” will play at the West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road in Princeton Junction, through April 22. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 759-0045 or visit pegasustheatrenj.org.