“Bakersfield Mist” is an intense exploration of the nature of art

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Scene from
Scene from "Bakersfield Mist" at Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ

Stephen Sachs’ one-act play Bakersfield Mist is a gripping two-character work that deals with questions about art. What separates art from trash? Does a detached, intellectual analysis outweigh the emotional experience when a work of art speaks to you? What, in the end, determines the true value of art? Morristown’s Bickford Theatre has mounted an excellent production examining these questions and more.

Scene from "Bakersfield Mist" at Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ
Scene from “Bakersfield Mist” at Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ

Lionel Percy, an expert in evaluating the authenticity of pieces of art for a New York foundation, makes the trek to the California trailer park home of Maude Gutman. Maude believes that a painting purchased at a yard sale is actually a lost work by Jackson Pollock, and sees Percy’s visit as her last hope to have it recognized as one. Percy comes across as an intellectual snob, disdainful of Maude’s lifestyle, defining himself by his various positions in the art world and his reputation in uncovering frauds. Maude is freewheeling and somewhat vulgar, her trailer adorned with items found at thrift shops, yard sales, and dumpsters, dropping f-bombs in her speech as though she were scattering verbal rose petals. Maude is dead certain that her painting is a Pollock, but Percy doesn’t feel the “tingle” he gets in the presence of great art, and the battle of wills begins.

Kim Zimmer, an Emmy Award-winning daytime actress, is subtle in her revelation of the grit and hardness of Maude’s life hiding underneath her ex-bartender’s cheerful hospitality. She is matched by the stuffy Percy, hiding personal and professional problems behind his cold professionalism, of Carl Wallnau, who along with acting is also artistic director of Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown and chairman of the Fine Arts Department of Centenary University. Eric Hafen, producing artistic director of the Bickford Theatre, has guided this pair with great skill, ensuring that the audience is never quite sure which of the two antagonists is right in their judgement.

Credit goes to the Bickford’s design team — scenic designer Roy Pancirov for his imaginatively trashy trailer, lighting and sound designer Roman Klima, and costume designer Christina Lockerby. Special mention also goes to prop designer Dani Pietrowski and her wonderful painting that has the characters — and the audience — wondering if it really could be a Pollock.

Scene from "Bakersfield Mist" at Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ
Scene from “Bakersfield Mist” at Bickford Theatre in Morristown, NJ

This is a stirring drama about the nature of art to move us, with two strong characters portrayed by two talented actors. I strongly recommend you see Bakersfield Mist before it ends its all-too-brief run at the Bickford Theatre in Morristown.

Bakersfield Mist is presented by the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morristown through November 5, 2017. For the performance schedule, tickets, and other information, visit morrismuseum.org.