It's the fantasy of many: to walk into a thrift store or wander by a garage sale and find a priceless treasure selling for a few bucks. Forget the American Dream, this is the American Castle in the Sky. It's also the basis of playwright Stephen Sachs's Bakersfield Mist, currently playing at the Olney Theatre Center.
Based on the true story of Teri Horton, who purchased what she thought to be a priceless Jackson Pollock painting for $5, the play is essentially a comic debate about the authenticity of a painting between Maude, a foul-mouthed, unemployed bartender living in a trailer park, and Lionel, the audacious art expert who arrives to authenticate the Pollock. However, the art expert's critique goes much deeper, relying on stereotypical first impressions of Maude, and through a collision of cultures and class attitudes, we soon learn that not everything is what it appears.
Donna Migliaccio is an absolute hoot as Maude, the boozy loner who desperately wants validation — although whether it's for the painting or her life is really what's at question. She is masterful at transitioning from comedy to drama at the blink of an eye, as Maude's determined to get what she wants will stop at nothing, including threats, sexual favors, and sheer desperation. When Maude pleads with Lionel, "You're my last hope. I need your blessing," it melts the heart just a little bit. When we learn about Maude's unruly husband, a tragedy from her past and the circumstances of her losing her job, it's hard not to empathize with what she's going through, and Migliaccio grabs hold of every ounce of emotion in a wonderful portrayal.
Michael Russotto is the perfect foil to Migliaccio's Maude, playing the arrogant art expert Lionel with demons of his own. Snooty, with an heir of superiority, Lionel reveals that he relies on first impressions, and he soon realizes that with Maude, that is a big mistake. In Russotto's best scene of the play, Lionel is sitting back, waiting for the unveiling of the painting, and his exaggerated animated reactions are priceless. He spends a good five minutes in silence, examining the work from every angle as a nervous Maude looks on. All the audience hears are wind chimes, and Russotto's facial expression and body movements would make Charlie Chaplain proud, until his character finally breaks the silence with his verdict on the painting.
Scenic designer Daniel Ettinger does a splendid job of crafting a trailer in the center of the theater that personifies every element of Maude. Her walls are adorned with Home Shopping collector plates of Princes Di, animals, a Dolly Parton album cover, and whimsical beer signs.
Working with a small space, director John Vreeke creates a ton of action in the one-room trailer set. He has the characters move and bob like they are in a boxing ring, each taking jabs at the other's life until finally an all-out assault occurs.
Costume designer Seth M. Gilbert's outfits for both characters ring true. The real hero of the production team is sound designer Christopher Baine, who throughout the many silences in the play, layers in wind chimes, howling wind, and the occasional car racing by. The authenticity of Baine's soundscape makes you feel as if you are really in this trailer.
Whether the painting is an authentic Pollock isn't at the heart of Sachs's wrenching story. What is important to Maude is its validation. The instant judgments we make on paintings (and people) aren't always justified.