Chicago Theatre Review
Bakersfield Mist – Timeline Theatre Company
Maude Gutman is a foul-mouthed, unemployed bartender, who prides herself on how beautifully she’s decorated her modest mobile home with tchotchkes from the local secondhand store. Having purchased, as a gag gift, what she considered to be “the ugliest painting” at the Bakersfield, California thrift shop, Maude now believes it may actually be a priceless work of art. In this 85-minute drama that plays in realtime, Mrs. Gutman is awaiting the arrival of Lionel Percy, a renown, New York art expert who, she hopes, will authenticate her painting as a real Jackson Pollack. When these two individuals, products of very different environments, finally meet a passionate, heated debate ensues over the nature of art, the role of culture in our lives, class differences and, ultimately, what is real.
Award-winning playwright and director Stephen Sachs authors this fascinating two-hander, which plays out like a well-constructed mystery. And although the play’s filled with unexpected humor, audiences will find themselves on the edge of their seats as the evening ratchets up to its final conclusion. In addition to debating questions about art versus junk, the qualities necessary to call a work a masterpiece and what monetary value should be placed on such cultural treasures, Sachs’ play asks us to consider the authenticity of all the people in our lives, as well as ourselves. While one individual may be poor, uneducated and limited in experiences, and another is wealthy, schooled and worldly wise, aren’t all people basically the same? These two characters, from two very different sides of the track, may be more alike than they think. But, is either of these characters more real than the other?
Director Kevin Christopher Fox has staged this twister with style and energy. Wedged inside the confines of scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s minutely detailed, cramped trailer, generously adorned with truckloads of props and cluttered decor, compliments of Mary O’Dowd, the two characters converse, confess, argue, plead and threaten each other until the bitter end. Andrew Hansen has completed the overall effect with a realistic sound design that includes a front yard of irritated canines.
But for all the brilliance to be found in Sachs’ writing, it’s the two talented Chicago actors who breathe life into this play. Janet Ulrich Brooks plays against type as Maude. Audiences won’t recognize this same gifted artist, whom they recently applauded in such area productions as TimeLine’s “The Apple Family Plays” or Goodman’s “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike. Spewing four-letter expletives and swilling bourbon like a sailor, Ms. Brooks is unbelievable in this role. The actress, who’s judicious in her character choices, never veers into the dangerous realm of caricature, but always keeps this woman honest and right on track.
She’s matched moment for moment by her costar, the incredibly talented and always surprising Mike Nussbaum, as Lionel. Dripping with sophisticated style and brimming with knowledge, Nussbaum is just this side of arrogant in his portrayal of an overly-educated master of the arts. As he resists Maude’s offerings a chair, homemade refreshments, and more, Mr. Nussbaum keeps Lionel slightly snobbish and all business. However, when he finally lets down his hair and shares a moment of frank, soul-bearing conversation with Maude, we’re treated to the real Lionel, the man beneath the professional expertise. In the hands of this superb actor, the transformation is seamless and heartbreaking, and we feel, by the end of the play, that we know this man inside and out.
What’s real and what’s fake? That question is the crux of this excellent play by Stephen Sachs, launching TimeLine’s 20th season in a Chicago premiere that’ll long be remembered for its intriguing debates about reality and deception, as well as the importance of art in our lives. A chance to witness two magnificent local actors going head-to-head, while trapped within the claustrophobic confines of a trashy mobile home, is must-see. For audiences who prefer their discussions about art to be served up with pigs-in-a-blanket and a shot of whiskey, this is the perfect evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 19-October 15 by TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling them at 773-327-5252 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.