“Bakersfield Mist” Draws on History and Humanity to Create an Authentic Viewing Experience

Bakersfield Mist
Lamb Arts Regional Theatre
Sioux City, Iowa
Wednesday, May 20, 2021

Last night, Lamb Theatre staged another performance of Stephen Sachs’s Bakersfield Mist, which follows Maude Gutman’s attempt to certify a three-dollar thrift-store purchase as an authentic Jackson Pollock masterpiece.   But in order to succeed, Maude’s heartfelt zeal (and humble hostessing) must win over the skeptical art critic, Lionel Percy.  Thus begins the drama (and the comedy).  Because of random scheduling conflicts—like a baseball game and spilled dog food—I almost didn’t make it.  But I’m certainly glad I did. 

Bakersfield Mist is a play of opposites: opposing opinions, opposing worldviews, opposing backgrounds.  The entire play consists of two actors (Leslie Werden as Maude and John Beumler as Lionel) at odds with each other.  It would be easy to say that the characters want opposite things: Maude wants to validate the painting; Lionel does not.  But that’s not clear.  In fact, there’s a part of me that believes Lionel really does want to validate the painting as an authentic Pollock, but because of his background and what he calls his “educated intuition,” he initially cannot. 

The play is about what it’s about.  We never wander far from the matter at hand.  After a few moments of wondering whether the painting will ever actually appear onstage, it does, and it serves as the center of most of the remaining action.  But in addition to being a play about a painting—an art object built around another art object—the play also makes us consider the things we know, why we think we know them, and how we arrived at that “knowledge.” 

This play presented on this state is great entertainment.  But how did we get there?  Dramatists Play Service, which licenses performances, advertises the play as a Comedy-Drama.  The play is fun, sometimes funny, but never exactly hilarious—which I appreciate.  It’s easy to imagine a staging that takes the trailer-park trope and exaggerates it to the point of caricature.  But Werden’s Maude resists the slapstick and moves through the play—and, we can suppose, the rest of her life—with a modest dignity.  Spoiler alert: At one point she is offered a significant sum for the un-authenticated canvas, but she rejects it because she believes the painting is real and she wants what she deserves.  I have to wonder what Maude thinks of her own situation, whether she’s gotten what she thinks she deserves, or if the world has mis-valued her worth, her life as well. 

Beumler’s Lionel hews a little closer to stereotype, but that seems to be what Beumler’s Lionel wants.  He is a product of the art/museum/culture culture and actively resists being ousted from it.  At one point Lionel abandons or breaks free from that stiffness and launches into a lyric meditation on Pollock and his process.  Here he becomes what he says great art itself becomes: “A physical thing express[ing] the nonphysical.” 

If the play itself is about the physical thing, the painting, it’s also about the nonphysical: about knowledge and belief.  Lionel often boasts of his trained intuition.  (Maude’s last name, Gutman, must be a play on this kind of instinctual, gut belief.)  Maude herself, toward the end of the play, admits she’s “had it up to here with experts.”  The whole play addresses this idea of knowing: who can—and perhaps even should—know a thing. 

This is another one of the play’s oppositions.  The painting is either a Pollock or it isn’t.  There is a truth here, whether or not it is knowable by any of the characters.  But what a Pollock does is messier.  How does it make you feel?  Authenticating a painting as a Pollock may require scientific testing and time-earned professional expertise, but what makes someone an expert in their own feeling, their own experience?  Can Maude and Lionel have the same emotional experience of the painting?  Can they have different ones?  Is someone’s experience of a painting more authentic or more justifiable than someone else’s?  Is someone’s experience of a play? 

Toward the end of the play, Maude believes her silver bullet is evidence of a fingerprint left on the back of the canvas.  The fingerprint ties the finger of the maker—in space and in time—to the made thing itself.  Stephen Sachs published Bakersfield Mist in 2014, which means it was written some time before that.  It belongs to its time, but it also belongs to ours, now, too.  My experience of the play must be different than the experience Sachs had writing it, or that Sachs had watching it in its original performances.  It’s hard to see Mist in May of 2021 and not hear Lionel say “I choose not to believe it” or Maude say “I’ve had it up to here with experts” in the context of our modern era. 

As fluid and timeless as some of these moments prove to be, others seem more firmly and conspicuously rooted to their source material.  Mist is based on the story of Teri Horton, a truck driver who purchased a $5 painting she later believed to be a Pollock.  Horton’s story—documented in the 2006 film Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?—provides fertile and fairly transparent ground for Sachs’s play.  But other sources are harder to look past.  Maude refers to the blemish in Lionel’s career when his intuition—what he calls his “blink”—fails him in assessing a Greek statue, a kouros.  Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book focuses on this kind of educated intuition.  Its first chapter, called “The Statue That Didn’t Look Right,” investigates the misguided authentication of a kouros.  That book was called Blink

I found these moments in the play to be somewhat clumsy callbacks to its own time and its own source material.  Once I noticed them, it was hard to unsee or see past them.  (In this way the Lamb performance may well have out-performed the text.)  But as Lionel himself says, “Nothing is without a flaw,” and Mist pleases both in its superficiality as entertainment and its subtler openness to broader questions that transcend its own moment of creation.  Werden and Beumler embody believable characters we may disagree with but ultimately care for.  While Maude and Lionel are constantly asking and answering questions, the play itself—like most good pieces of art—does a better job posing the questions than resolving them. 

If you want to see Bakerfield Mist—and you should—you can attend in-person at Lamb Theatre in Sioux City (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, May 20, 21, and 22).  Or you can stream the performance here until May 29.  I can’t tell you what makes a Pollock a Pollock, but I can tell you that whatever you experience at Bakersfield Mist, you will experience something. 

Brendan Todt lives in Sioux City, Iowa. He coaches his sons’ soccer teams and teaches Creative Writing at Morningside University. He has not been in a play since the ninth grade.