‘Bakersfield Mist’ explores Jackson Pollack mystery painting

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Janet Ulrich Brooks as Maude Gutman and Mike Nussbaum as Lionel Percy in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Bakersfield Mist.” Photo by Lara Goetsch

“Bakersfield Mist” is a whodunit of a different sort. It’s inspired by the true story of a California woman who bought a painting for a few bucks in a thrift shop and soon learned it could possibly be an undiscovered Jackson Pollock masterpiece worth millions. Enter the New York art expert sent to answer the question: Is it authentic or a forgery?

‘Bakersfield Mist’ When: Aug. 19-Oct. 15 Where: TimeLine Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $38-$51 Info: timelinetheatre.com

“I thought it would be wonderful to get these two characters alone together in a room,” playwright Stephen Sachs says. “Two people at opposite ends of the social spectrum who would not normally meet under any circumstances and have their worlds collide.”

And collide they do.

Maude Gutman (Janet Ulrich Brooks) is an unemployed bartender living in a trailer decorated with the colorful detritus she finds in junk shops. A woman who speaks her mind, she’s invited renowned art expert Lionel Percy (Mike Nussbaum) to have a look at a painting she bought for $3. In anger, humor and resignation, words, ideas and theories are tossed about in the 80-minute two-person play.

Who gets to decide what is art? Who determines its values? Does art matter? These questions evolve into a more personal battle of classes that examines the authenticity and worth of human beings and the discovery that Maude and Lionel have more in common than they first realized.

“Both Lionel and Maude are lonely, wounded souls,” Sachs says, in a phone conversation from Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre where he is co-artistic director. “They are both trying to figure out how to make their life meaningful and in different ways art helps them achieve this goal.”

Snobbish Lionel finds Maude unbelievably crass and uneducated until the two of them find a sort of “emotional accommodation,” Nussbaum says. “I think they find a common humanity that neither of them suspected the other had.”

(Retired truck driver Teri Horton, who has seen the play and loved it, is the real-life counterpart to Maude and the subject of the 2006 documentary, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?!” which sparked Sachs idea for the play.)

Brooks says she loves Maude’s “this-is-me-pal attitude.” On the other hand, Nussbaum says he doesn’t much like Lionel’s superior attitude toward the world and Maude. These are characters that could easily become broadly drawn stereotypes. But the actors are steering in other directions: “I think we want to find the humor of these characters from a place of love and compassion and honesty,” Ulrich notes.

Nussbaum admits at first he was reluctant to take the part. The play’s directions call for an actor in his 60s plus there’s a lot of rough physical activity as the play unfolds. A fight choreographer is not something you expect to find in a two-actor play starring a 91-year-old, admits Nussbaum.

“There was no way I could wrestle with Janet without major damage,” Nussbaum says with a laugh. “So we’ve made it a sort of throwing match with all the objects in her trailer.”

Sachs says writing a two-person play is always challenging, especially a one-act where the momentum keeps moving forward without a break. “I saw this one as kind of a boxing match with different rounds and the two of them battling each other to stay on their feet,” he says laughing. “The fun of this is watching your own allegiances move back and forth between the two.”

And what does Sachs think of Pollock’s massive drip paintings that are a standard of abstract expressionism? Research and a trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art helped him develop a fuller appreciation of the paintings and the man behind them.

“When I stood in front of one of his massive paintings, I was just dumbstruck. They are so kinetic and alive and vibrant. Lionel has this line in the play describing Pollock’s work as ‘rewiring the retina.’ I think that’s exactly what they do.”

And does he think Horton’s painting is real or a forgery?

“I’m not going to say,” he says, laughing. “But I want to believe it is. It’s a great mystery.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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