Renowned art expert Lionel Percy is spending the afternoon in a trailer park in Bakersfield, Calif. And he’s not happy about it.
Maude Gutman — an unemployed bartender who owns the trailer that he finds himself in, and who is, in fact, paying for him to be there — offers him a drink, to take the edge off. He declines. “I’ll keep the edge on, if you don’t mind,” he says.
These are the only two characters in “Bakersfield Mist,” Stephen Sachs’ 2014 play, which will be at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through Nov. 5. And an art museum is pretty much the perfect setting for it, because it’s a play that encourages us to think about what art is, and how we recognize genius.
Maude (played by Kim Zimmer) likes to go around to garage sales and junk shops and so on, and see what she can find. She calls herself a “scavenger.” One day, she came across a painting she considered so absurdly bad that she bought it, for a few bucks, as a goof. But then a local high school teacher told her thought it might be one of Pollock’s splatter paintings, and she did some research, and convinced herself that that’s what it was.
“Who else would paint this shit?” she asks at one point, in the course of the play.
So she contacted a foundation and paid their fee, and they assigned Percy to visit Maude’s knickknack-cluttered trailer home, and examine the painting. If he verifies its authenticity, she’ll be able to sell it for millions of dollars.
That’s where “Bakersfield Mist” — directed, here, by Eric Hafen (the Bickford Theatre’s producing artistic director), with appropriately shabby scenic design by Roy Pancirov — begins. Lionel (played by Carl Wallnau) shows up, and takes a look at the painting, and makes his assessment. The two talk, and, being the opposites that they are, clash. The crass Maude has no filter, after all, and the refined Lionel is all filter.
They talk about the painting, at first, but then about art, in general, and their lives, and so on. We eventually learn a lot about them. The question of the painting’s authenticity is never fully resolved, but that’s beside the point; the play is really about two people, thrown together by unlikely circumstance and forced to deal with each other.
Along the way, Sachs brings up questions about art. Does Lionel allow his low opinion of Maude, and her home, to influence his assessment of the painting? And how does he make that assessment? Is it a matter of determining if the essence of the artist is present in the painting, or is it a more mundane matter of analyzing the type of paint used, and the canvas, and so on?
Zimmer, a four-time Daytime Emmy winner for her work in the soap opera “Guiding Light,” and Wallnau, the artistic director of the Centenary Stage Company (which was not involved in this production), are both excellent. Zimmer gets Maude’s unapologetic bluntness just right, and Wallnau oozes condescension. The characters almost seem like one-dimensional cartoons at first, but as Sachs reveals more about them, Wallnau and Zimmer make them seem more human.
There are some unbelievable aspects of the play. Sachs doesn’t just have the bottled-up Lionel open up; he gives him a rapturous soliloquy about Pollock that seems several steps beyond where Lionel would really go, in real life. Sachs also gives Maude an expletive in every other line (or it just seems that way). Some people do talk like that, I know, but would Maude really use such foul language when dealing with a stranger? With millions in the balance, wouldn’t she be on her best behavior?
More importantly, the play’s main premise, that Lionel — who wants to get out of what he perceives as a hellhole as quickly as possible — and Maude would engage in this long and, ultimately, very personal conversation, doesn’t really ring true. One of the first things Lionel says after he walks through her door is, “This won’t take long.”
So, you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit. But “Bakersfield Mist” is still an engaging and thought-provoking play, with two intriguing characters and a big, fascinating question at the center of it.
“Bakersfield Mist” will be at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township through Nov. 5; visit morrismuseum.org. For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to email@example.com by midnight Nov. 1, with the word “Bakersfield” in the subject line. Please say in email if you’d prefer the 8 p.m. Nov. 3 or 8 p.m. Nov. 4 performance.