Riverside’s ‘Bakersfield Mist’ as hilarious as it is discomfiting

Bakersfield Mist

Riverside Theatre — through Oct. 1

Tim Budd and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers in ‘Bakersfield Mist’ at Riverside Theatre. — photo by Bob Goodfellow

Riverside’s Artistic Director, Sean Lewis, has selected a contemporary season ripe with social commentary and exposing parts of humanity not commonly discussed in the theatrical classics often produced in the area. Bakersfield Mist (through Oct. 1; tickets $12-30) starts this season off with a satisfying and eye-opening bang.

S. Benjamin Farrar’s set confronts the audience with a set that closely, realistically, resembles the interior of an airstream or mobile home. Various stereotypes begin to flood your brain, and it’s hard to admit that you’re having these non-pc thoughts: Whoever lives here is poor. She’s uneducated. Desperate. Lonely (where are her cats?). Knowing we have these feelings about her makes us uncomfortable because we know these feelings aren’t the right ones to have. We know that she’s simply a person, no different from you or me. But there we are.

Maude Gutman, this lower-class woman (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers), has convinced herself that she has uncovered the find of a century. In the shadows of a dirty thrift haunt, she’s found the ugliest Jackson Pollock painting to ever have existed. It’s an absurd claim. Who would believe that?

Enter the art expert, Lionel Percy (Tim Budd): a foppish, elite specimen; a solid base of absolute knowing, fluent in both artists and art from the beginning of time until tomorrow. The audience breathes an inaudible sigh of relief. Ah. This gentleman. He will set things right. He is comfortable. We know him. He is us.

Both Budd and Hartsgrove Mooers are veteran performers and staples in this town. We consistently see them in a variety of roles, and their work in Bakersfield Mist reminds us why. Budd pulls off the over-enunciating, superior, smug attitude extraordinarily well. But, through his interactions with Maude, we can see him changing, ever so slightly. Keeping his eyes on her for more than just a blink, he can begin to see the richness beneath her grubby surface.

And Hartsgrove Mooers is divine. She has an incredible ability to always remain herself, yet tailor characters to her so that they are void of falsehood — she and the characters she portrays become one multi-dimensional, unapologetically real human. As Maude, she is surprising, loveable, pitiful and inside every audience member who’s willing to recognize it.

There is a mystery surrounding this show. Is it a real Pollock? Is Lionel pulling Maude’s chain, lying to her entirely, or simply terrified of making a mistake when appraising the piece? Or maybe his assertion is correct? And how is she so sure? What drives her? The potential millions she stands to make? Or is it something else?

Hartsgrove Mooers and Budd play beautifully with each other. There is a trust and chemistry between them that maintains honesty while the action of this seemingly simple conflict barrels forward. By the time the story has resolved and the lights shift to black, you realize you had no idea that the ride was actually over.

Sean Lewis’ direction is on point with this production. It is paced so well, the moments filled so completely, the space between the actors so palpable, that, before you know it, you’re applauding.

‘Bakersfield Mist’ runs through Oct. 1. — photo by Bob Goodfellow

There is a need to feel seen. To feel as though you exist. I think I can say with some authority that the majority of the audience at Riverside does feel this. And, yet, there are entire populations that are unseen and conveniently labeled so that they remain an idea, instead of the individuals they are: individuals of flesh and blood, with hopes, goals, fears, loves — these are inherent traits of all humanity, and all of the categories we place ourselves and others in are unable to move the fact that we are all just people. We all deserve more than a blink.

Stephen Sachs’ dramatic and hilarious play is extremely well done here, from the set to the direction to the exceptional acting. But that’s not all. It’s not just your run-of-the-mill fantastic entertainment, it’s full of purpose that speaks to our current context and it has the potential to nudge a bit of action in those touched by it. I love it when art is more than what we see on the surface — when it makes us look inward and all around us because it speaks some sort of truth we’re terrified to admit.

Art like this has the potential to make an impact — not just because we see ourselves in the people and scenarios presented on stage, but because we don’t necessarily jump for joy when we recognize the similarities. We have work to do. All of us. And being reminded of that is a testament to the immense power playwrights like Sachs,directors like Lewis, technical designers like Farrar and actors like Hartsgrove Mooers and Budd have the potential to wield when all those planets come into beautiful and honest alignment.

Here is the underlying secret of this show: It isn’t necessarily preaching to the choir, but delivering a thoughtful lesson. The people who can afford to go to the theatre live nearer the art expert’s camp. We do. We are the educated class, but many of us forget some of the most important lessons. People are just people: flawed, capable and imperfectly beautiful. We are each unique, from the perfectly feng shuied urban townhouse to the trailer parks and projects. None of us are better than, more important than, more capable than anyone else. And, truly, if we got to know people beneath the societally damaged and ugly façade, we might discover the greatest find of the century.

Go see Bakersfield Mist. Let it work on you. Let art better us all.

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