Bakersfield Mist

                              By the TimeLine Theatre

                                     By Dan Zeff

Chicago –The TimeLine Theatre production of “Bakersfield Mist” runs barely 80 minutes with no intermission. It has only two characters and a single set but the show will make viewers laugh and think, and best of all it offers a gratifying exhibition of the acting skills provided by the iconic Mike Nussbaum.

“Bakersfield Mist” has been making the rounds of regional theaters since it opened in Los Angeles in 2011. The Stephen Sachs play is inspired by an actual event, a woman claiming a painting she bought at a thrift shop for $3 was really the work of Jackson Pollock, and thus worth maybe $100 million. In “Bakersfield Mist,” the woman is a blowsy ex bartender living in a California trailer park. An internationally known art expert from New York City arrives to pass judgment on whether her painting is actually a Pollock and not a forgery.

The play is basically a confrontation between Maude Gutman, an unemployed ex-bartender and the owner of the maybe Pollock, and art expert Lionel Percy, appointed by an international foundation to examine the painting for its possible authenticity. They are the oddest of couples and the class and culture clash between the two is one of the play’s main themes. Another explores the difficulty of defining what is true art, what is authentic in art, and our intensely personal relationship to art. Those are cerebral issues but the play deals with them in human terms, sometimes comic and sometimes suspenseful, that are as accessible as they are thought provoking.

Photo by Lara Goetsch

The viewer is inclined to side with the uneducated, foul mouthed, and hard drinking Maude over the educated, snobbish, and condescending Lionel. We also root for Maude because we believe her when she claims that she wants the painting validated for reasons that have nothing to do with money (a foreign buyer had offered her $2 million for the picture, no questions asked). Maude is convinced the painting is genuine and validating its authenticity is an emotional rather than monetary obsession. She has developed a personal connection with the picture, her most meaningful relationship in a life that otherwise seems to have reached a dead end.

Early in the play Percy declares the painting is not a real Pollock. He is just as passionate about his reliance on his own expertise to dismiss the picture as Maude is about getting the painting approved. And so the verbal, and occasionally physical sparks fly. Maude expresses herself in profanity and in-your-face argument, parried by Percy’s droll, patronizing sarcasm embellishing his conviction that his verdict is correct.

Along the way both characters take a break from their hostilities to recount traumatic events in their lives that give them a kind of emotional bond. In real life it would be highly unlikely that Maude and Percy, two people with nothing in common, should expose their sensitive and painful back stories to an individual they had never seen before and will never see again. Yet in Sachs’s skillful narrative, the confessional passages emerge naturally and fluidly from the battle of wills.

Janet Ulrich Brooks plays Maude, a daunting assignment in facing off alone against Nussbaum, surely the most affectionately embraced actor on the Chicagoland scene, not to mention one of our finest. Brooks’s Maude may fall into the “trailer trash” category, but she is still three dimensional, a woman who has led a hardscrabble life filled with personal failure and disappointment. But she is a survivor who demands rather than begs for what she sees as justice in validating her painting.

Photo by Lara Goetsch

After six decades in Chicago theater, Nussbaum is still at the top of his game (his performance as Goldberg in Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” at the Hull House Theater in the 1960’s is still one of my most fondly remembered theater experiences). Nussbaum’s Percy isn’t just a pompous elitist come to rain on Maude’s parade. His Percy loves genuine art for what it can do to elevate the human spirit and he despises fake art that debases the real thing. Percy delivers an impassioned speech celebrating the wonders of Pollock’s style will unlock the magnificence of Pollock’s art to any listener who wonders why this paint dribbler should be so revered.

The action is set in the cluttered interior of Maude’s trailer, a set that becomes a subliminal character in the play. Props to Jeffrey Kmiec for the set and to Mary O’Dowd for assembling such an atmospheric clutter of objects to bring the set to life. Jared Gooding’s lighting design and Andrew Hansen’s sound design round out a first class physical production that fits perfectly in the intimate theater. Director Kevin Christopher Fox gives the staging sure, if unobtrusive guidance. His production earns the ultimate in complements. The viewer can’t imagine the play being done any other way.

“Bakersfield Mist” raises the questions of what can be called authentic and who has the right to declare what is a masterpiece and what is fake or second rate in art. It’s a subjective matter that is colored by egos, politics, and the difficulty of judging something based on subjective “gut” assessment in the absence of hard evidence. Reputations and fortunes hang in the balance, to be decided by the perceived credibility of the expert. It’s intellectually chewy stuff, made stimulating and entertaining in this concise yet fulfilling play brought to exhilarating life by a pair of terrific performances.

“Bakersfield Mist” runs through October 15 at the TimeLine’s alternate venue at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Most performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40.50 to $53.50. Call 773 281 8463 or visit

         The show gets a rating of 4 stars              August 2016

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