Coachella Valley Repertory has made a triumphant return to live theater with Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist, based on the true story of a Costa Mesa woman who believed that a $5 painting she bought at a junk shop was a Jackson Pollock masterpiece worth millions.
After opening week, however, CVRep’s triumphant return was been delayed due to a positive COVID-19 test among a member of the cast or crew. “Because CVRep had stringent protocols in place for COVID safety, no patron, team member or volunteer was potentially exposed to the infected person,” the company said. The run of the play will resume Dec. 7.
Back to the play: Sachs changed the setting to Bakersfield, switched the woman’s occupation from retired truck driver to bartender, added a stuffy art critic who comes to evaluate the painting—and, voila, a play was born. The premise is indeed interesting, but the arc of the play doesn’t always ring true.
CVRep’s production is top-notch, featuring two seasoned actors who bring the characters of Maude Gutman and Lionel Percy to life with great flair; their chemistry is palpable. Gutman (Stephanie Erb), recently fired from her bartending job after a suicide attempt, passes the time in her trailer guzzling bourbon and watching Law and Order. She is firmly convinced that the large, “ugly” painting she almost threw away is a Pollock, and that it will someday sell for more than $50 million. Enter Lionel Percy (Arthur Hanket), a stuffy, repressed art critic who has been dispatched to authenticate Maude’s purchase. Lionel was fired from his prestigious job at an art museum after spending a fortune on what turned out to be a fraudulent sculpture. (Sachs says the character of Lionel is loosely based on controversial art critic and consultant Thomas Hoving, who led the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a decade.)
Watching these two size each other up early in the play is highly entertaining. The hardscrabble Maude, deeply suspicious of the snooty art “expert,” holds her own against the uptight, arrogant Lionel, who has written her off as delusional before he even lays eyes on her. Tired of his condescension, Maude at one point implores him, “Come on; be a person!” Later, she admits: “My idea of ancient pottery is the Tupperware I’ve had since 1981.”
Though the characters seem to have a rapport right off the bat, it is still hard to accept that less than an hour after arriving, Lionel would bare his soul about his troubled marriage, his professional downfall and his almost-obsessive passion for art. Maude lets loose as well, detailing her own marital issues, and sharing a family tragedy. Yes, a steady consumption of bourbon has loosened their inhibitions, but the change in their interaction from wary and adversarial to intimate seems a bit abrupt. That is a flaw in the script, however, not in the performances nor the directing.
The two leads, real-life husband and wife Erb and Hanket, are exceptional. They both have impressive résumés and have worked together often in the past—certainly factors in the magic they create onstage. Erb expertly conveys Maude’s earthiness, wit, vulnerability and determination not to be dismissed by a self-important art “authority.” Her salty language and thrift-store decorating style help make her instantly likable.
Hanket’s Lionel is buttoned-up and pompous early on. As the booze loosens him up, he lets us see his almost-religious zeal for art—his monologue about Jackson Pollock is priceless—as well as his humor. Watching these two onstage is like watching a master class in acting.
Ron Celona once again displays his skill as a director here. Step one: flawless casting. Step two: expertly guiding his actors toward the creation of unforgettable characters.
Jimmy Cuomo’s set is terrific. The sound, lighting, hair, makeup and costumes are all perfect for the play.
CVRep’s theme for this season is “Hopes, Dreams and Expectations”—a perfect choice, given what we’ve all been though the past 18 months. A global pandemic, a climate crisis and political unrest have moved many of us to revise our expectations for the future, and the question of what is “real” looms large.
So … what is real, and what is fake? And who makes that determination? CVRep’s Bakersfield Mist makes us stop and think about those questions—and that is what great theater is all about.
Performances of Bakersfield Mist will resume from Dec. 7-12, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $58, and the running time is 75 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.
(Edited on Nov. 15 to reflect the show’s postponement.)