Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Bakersfield Mist
Theatre Artists Studio
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Peter and the Starcatcher, Threesome, 3 No Trump, American Idiot, The Illusionists: Live from Broadway, and Camelot

Marney Austin and Tom Koelbel
Photo by Mark Gluckman
Stephen Sachs' Bakersfield Mist is an intriguing, yet not completely successful, comedy-drama that delves into the topic of art and brings up some questions about how one determines the quality of it. Is art only good if someone with authority says it is? If someone with no knowledge believes it is good, does that also qualify as a meaningful validation? Theatre Artists Studio presents the area premiere of this two-character, one-act play, with a talented cast and realistic creative elements that help make up for some of the play's shortcomings.

Set in Bakersfield, California, and based on a true story, the plot begins when Lionel Percy, a New York art authenticator, arrives at the trailer park home of Maude Gutman to determine if the painting she bought for $3 at a thrift store is in fact a lost Jackson Pollock masterpiece worth millions. Over the next 80 minutes, Lloyd and Maude discover that each has demons in their past and that, because of Google, Maude knows a lot more about Lloyd than he thinks she does, including the fact that he was fired from heading up New York's Museum of Metropolitan Art for determining a very expensive piece of art was legit when it turned out to be fake. Has that experience tainted his ability to determine the legitimacy of Maude's painting?

While the play is based on a true story of a woman who found a painting that an art teacher believed to be a Pollock, prompting her to have it authenticated, Sachs also uses another real life story to help get across his point about how important setting, context and approval are for giving legitimacy to something of possible value. In 2007, the brilliant violinist Joshua Bell dressed as a homeless person in a D.C. subway station and played some of the most challenging classical musical violin pieces on his Stradivarius. He earned just over $30 in tips as most people, not thinking anyone of any importance or fame would be playing in such a place, let alone a homeless person, passed him by without giving a second thought. In the play Lloyd tells Maude about Bell's experiment but we easily understand the point that Sachs is trying to get across: The fact that Marge's supposed Jackson painting was found in a thrift store and is on view on a side table in a trailer park, next to her paintings of clowns and dogs playing pool, couldn't possibly mean it is worth more than the $3 she paid for it, let alone be an actual Jackson Pollock, right?

It is an interesting question that also brings up the adage of beauty being in the eye of the beholder and the idea that the value of art should truly be equal to the joy that it brings to the person who owns it. Sachs poses some intriguing questions about art and validation. He also attempts to portray how intelligence comes into play in this validation by having the opinions of the educated New Yorker Lionel pitted against those of the uneducated, blue collar Maude, with Lionel's opinions perceived to be more accurate. But the characters don't always sound realistic and some of their actions don't exactly ring true. These two strangers reveal intimate things about themselves in a very short time period that seem forced and unrealistic. The play is also somewhat padded in spots even though it is always interesting.

Marney Austin and Tom Koelbel are very believable as these very different people. Austin is full of life and a fiery passion as the rough around the edges Maude. Koelbel projects the appropriate air of authority that Lionel possesses without making the delivery of his lines sound too condescending. Director Richard Powers-Hardt does an exceptional job of staging the action across his fixed, very well-designed set that portrays the main room of Marge's trailer in order to give some variation to what could otherwise be very static action in a fairly small space.

While Bakersfield Mist may not be completely successful it still makes for an interesting character study and poses some provoking questions about art, identity, and the importance of validation.

Bakersfield Mist at Theatre Artists Studio through January 29th, 2017, 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are on sale at or by calling 602-765-0120.

Director / Set Designer: Richard Powers-Hardt
Lighting Design: Stacey Walston

Maude Gutman: Marney Austin
Lionel Percy: Tom Koelbel