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Rousuck’s Review: "Bakersfield Mist" at Olney Theatre Center

Photo: Nick Griner

Maybe you heard about the Rembrandt that was discovered in a New Jersey basement. Or, maybe you remember the little painting that was purchased at a West Virginia flea market and turned out to be a Renoir – a Renoir that was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

So there’s precedent for the unwanted, the overlooked, the discarded – let’s face it, someone’s trash – turning out to be a masterpiece. In the case of Stephen Sachs’ play, “Bakersfield Mist,” there’s a very direct precedent. 

The play was inspired by the case of a California truck driver who bought a thrift shop painting she was sure was by Jackson Pollock. Art experts were sure it was not. The jury’s still out, but the events were chronicled in a 2006 documentary.

The subject would seem to have built-in drama: Discover a masterpiece, uncover a fortune. Even if it’s a forgery, the investigation is dramatic.

Two years ago, “Bakersfield Mist” had a three-month run, starring Kathleen Turner, on London’s West End. Now it’s receiving its regional premiere at Olney Theatre Center. But while it may be about a potential masterpiece, the play is, at best, just a pair of character studies.

“Bakersfield Mist” is essentially a stand-off, a war of wills. On one side, there’s Maude, the woman who found the painting (in the play, she’s an ex-bartender). On the other side, there’s Lionel, an art expert Maude hopes will authenticate the painting.

Maude lives in a trailer in Bakersfield. Lionel is a New Yorker who arrives in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Her speech is liberally scattered with four-letter words. His is peppered with snooty pronouncements.

Under John Vreeke’s direction, Michael Russotto’s overstated portrayal of this stuffed shirt is one of the production’s chief problems. His Lionel indulges in silly, exaggerated warm-up exercises before he deigns to look at Maude’s painting. His re-enactment of Pollock’s quasi-sexual painting technique is even more over-the-top.

In contrast, although a trailer park denizen might seem easy to caricature, Donna Migliaccio’s Maude comes across as far more human. She’s so earnest, she continues pressing her case, no matter how demeaning Lionel is toward her.

The set for “Bakersfield Mist” also meets with mixed results. Designer Daniel Ettinger has done a spectacular job loading Maude’s trailer with kitsch – from beer signs to collectible plates to strings of Christmas lights.

But the configuration of Olney’s flexible Theatre Lab is less successful. The trailer is open on both sides and divides the theater down the middle. Half of the audience sits on one side, facing Maude’s sofa; the other half faces the back of the sofa.

“Bakersfield Mist” does take a stab at some serious themes: Class differences, what’s real and what’s fake, and why that should matter. But in the end, the play is little more than an art world “Odd Couple.” “Bakersfield Mist” may be based on an actual event, but the overall effect echoes Lionel’s assessment of Maude’s painting: It doesn’t ring true.

Bakersfield Mist” continues at Olney Theatre Center through June 12

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.