Bakersfield Mist is an engaging play anchored by two extremely good performances and directed by Angela Timberman with an authenticity that transports the audience to another place. Very humorous but also moving, at around 70 minutes it’s perfect for a weeknight or a trip to the theatre before heading out for a night on the town. It really hits a sweet spot that far, too few, shows do. It’s funny without being frivolous, it’s a window into the lives of other people, and for those that like their theatergoing to explore something and not just entertain, it does that too. The plot is about the verification of a possible Jackson Pollock painting, but it explores what is art and what is truth. It doesn’t answer those questions for you, it’s interested in raising those questions, but also in maintaining a reality that would be shattered if things were tied up neatly at the end.The play is written by Stephen Sachs and it opens in the trailer home of Maude in Bakersfield, California. Maude is waiting for the arrival of Lionel Percy who has flown in from New York to determine if a painting she purchased at a thrift store for $3, might in fact be a previously unknown Pollock painting. If genuine, would be worth between $50 to $100 Million dollars. Maude is your average trailer park denizen and Lionel is your average New York Intellectual. So what did you think when I said that? Did you picture Maude as a whiskey drinking, cigarette smoking, Tchotchke hoarding, tattooed, profanity spewing woman with too much eye makeup? What about Lionel? Suit wearing, cold, detached, superior, full of himself, $12 word using, “expert”, and judgemental? If so, you hit the nail on the head on both counts. But, like all real people, they are more than what we see at first “blink”. We all look like a certain “type” to people. What the play is telling us, we cannot rely on first impressions, that’s the surface, no one is just what can be read on the dust jacket of their life. The central idea of the play is this challenging of expectations. Lionel’s judgement and what follows is the metaphor for this idea. It’s a really clever script in that we never sense the connection because the play doesn’t feel over written, it feels grounded in real life and the characters behave like real people. When you get to the end you are struck by how artfully Sachs script has illustrated it’s ideas without compromising the reality of this world.
Jen Maren plays Maude as the kind of woman who just is, she’s lived so long in her community that she doesn’t try and make an impression she just behaves like herself. John Middleton plays Lionel as a man who is always on, he is always the expert, he is always in control, he probably hasn’t just been himself for decades. One seems to have no filter, the other is all filter. These performances are so well realized, you will recognize these characters as people you have known. If you come to this show to see some acting you are out of luck, I didn’t catch either of them acting once. I simply saw Maude and Lionel, and I can’t think of a better response to have to a performance.
The production is directed by Angela Timberman who never makes a bad choice. The staging is perfect right from the opening when Maude races out her front door to yell at the neighbors dogs. There was something about seeing Maude through her kitchen window yelling at the dogs and then running over to get them away from Lionel that just added to the feeling that we were not at a play but actually in this trailer home in California. Touches like that throughout the show built upon that reality. The Fight Director Annie Enneking staged one of the most realistic scuffles I’ve ever seen on stage, it was movie quality physicality. There’s a reason that stage fighting usually looks pretty fake, it’s because nobody wants anyone to get hurt, and it’s not like we are going to forget we’re at a play. Well you almost do in this one, the skirmish between Maude and Lionel, is just one of a multitude of reasons why. The Set and Lighting design by Carl Schoenborn and Sound Design by Katharine Horowitz’s are other reasons. The set has a real lived in feel to it down to the scuff marks on the linoleum floor. Hats off to Prop and Costume Designer Sarah Bauer who also contributes to the feeling of reality.
Bakersfield Mist is running through April 2nd at the Gremlin Theatre in St Paul, it’s in the same building as Lake Monster Brewing which is an excellent place to stop after the show and discuss what you saw over one of their local brews. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://gremlintheatre.org/.
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