ORLANDO – The Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s new production, “Bakersfield Mist,” the play by Stephen Sachs, has a gangbuster opening.
It’s set in the California trailer park home of Maude Gutman, decorated wall-to-wall with oddball items she’s collected at various flea markets and junk shops. If one man’s trash is another person’s treasures, Maude, an unemployed ex-bartender, has turned that concept into an art form.
And speaking of art, one of the items she has purchased – for a measly three bucks – is a painting that she freely admits is one of the ugliest things she’s ever seen. In fact, the abstract painting was chosen by Maude as a gag gift for a friend celebrating her birthday – only, the painting is so laughably hideous that her friend refused to accept it. They even thought about putting it outside and then loading up a gun and using it as target practice – except they got so drunk on beer that they couldn’t find the bullets.
That painting could have been just another piece of antique memorabilia that adorn Maude’s trailer, except for the fact that the art teacher from the local high school noticed it one day when Maude was hosting a yard sale, and convinced her it was actually the work of the late great abstract painter Jackson Pollack, one of the legendary and most influential figures in the abstract expressionist movement, known for his unique style of drip painting.
As the play opens, Maude is eagerly expecting a visit from Lionel Perry, a prominent New York art critic who can authenticate for her that the painting is indeed a lost Pollack masterpiece – meaning it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has the potential to radically transform her life, as surely as if she had won a jackpot through a lottery ticket. Imagine if her $3 investment becomes a multi-million dollar payoff.
But Perry quickly dashes cold water on Maude’s dreams, telling her the painting is the work of an imitator, and not a genuine Pollack piece. Maude is devastated – and determined to change his mind. So begins a battle of wits – and a striking contrast.
Maude is brash, foul-mouthed, and crude. When Perry arrives and her neighbor’s dogs bark at him, she screams vulgarities at the neighbor to get those dogs inside before she loads her gun and shoots them. Perry, finely dressed, is cultured, sophisticated, and refined. He looks positively horrified to be standing in such a place, is subtly mean to Maude, and eager to dismiss the painting and then make a hasty exit.
But will Sachs be able to demonstrate that Perry is no match for the fierce determination of Maude?
After such a solid open, the play shifts into a more wobbly and uneven middle section, as Maude tries every trick in the book to convince Perry to change his mind. Sachs has some trouble sustaining the play through its full 80-minute length (without an intermission). One of the paths he chooses – to delve into the characters’ backgrounds – produces mixed results.
In a sense, both characters come off at first as a bit clichéd – the sassy trailer trash gal versus the prissy, uppity elitist snob, and there’s always a risk that the play could lapse into becoming an extended episode of TV’s “Two Broke Girls,” with waitresses Max and Caroline giving it back to a New York snob. In fact, TV has been churning out this stuff since the days when the Clampetts were embarrassing the upper-income snobs in Beverly Hills back in the 1960s.
One way Sachs avoids this trap is through his portrayal of Perry, who, as it turns out, has plenty of demons of his own, despite his wealth, privilege and advanced education. As he finally agrees to sample some of Maude’s whiskey and opens up about his own failures, he becomes a richer and more interesting character. This is especially true thanks to the terrific performance by Steve Brady, who transforms Perry well beyond a one-note highbrow into a man who has fallen quite far, but does all he can to keep his shield of elite dignity intact.
As Maude, Anne Hering is just superb – funny, touching, and endearing for much of the play. It’s too bad that, as her character opens up, Sachs relies on a laundry list of trailer park clichés to flesh her out. Are there any women living in a trailer who don’t have a lazy, alcoholic husband, or a sweet but dumb son? It’s as if Sachs purchased a book on trailer park stereotypes and grabbed the top few. If Perry seems more fully fleshed out when he goes into confessional mode, Maude only seems to have stumbled into a “Two Broke Girls” script.
Sachs also produces a few plot twists that don’t make much sense – including a letter Maude got from India that completely contradicts everything she has said until then.
A far more interesting aspect of the play, which I wish Sachs had explored a bit more, is the question of who art in intended for – the elite sophisticates who are deeply moved by the stunning visualization of a Pollack piece, or the masses who prefer watching Maude toss another F-bomb? Even more intriguing is the sense that the painting ultimately represents to Maude something far more than a hefty bank account. It may be her way, in a society that has looked down on her for a long time as ignorant and disposable, to gain a touch of social respectability.
In addition to the superb performances by Brady and Hering, you’ll love the great set design of Maude’s home. Keep scanning the house, and you’ll repeatedly spot something that makes you laugh.
“Bakersfield Mist” plays through Nov. 15 at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. Shows are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Call 407-447-1700 for tickets and reservations.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..