Superb acting, authenticity define TimeLine's 'Bakersfield Mist'

  • Ex-bartender Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and art expert Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) debate the merits of a painting Maude found at a thrift store and believes is a lost Jackson Pollock masterpiece in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "Bakersfield Mist".

    Ex-bartender Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and art expert Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) debate the merits of a painting Maude found at a thrift store and believes is a lost Jackson Pollock masterpiece in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "Bakersfield Mist". Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

 
 
Updated 8/30/2016 8:54 PM

We should all be as lucky as Mike Nussbaum.

At 92, the Chicago actor whose career spans more than 60 years, remains on stage and at the top of his game as evidenced by his performance in "Bakersfield Mist," Stephen Sachs' engaging two-hander about art, class and authenticity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Nussbaum stars alongside Janet Ulrich Brooks in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of the dramedy inspired by the real-life story of Teri Horton. Horton was a retired truck driver who bought a painting at a thrift shop that she came to believe was a lost work by the great abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Her efforts to authenticate the painting inspired the 2006 documentary "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?" as well as Sachs' play, which unfolds as a battle of wills between the art connoisseur and the thrift-store scavenger over the question of what constitutes art and who determines the definition.

But the great appeal of director Kevin Christopher Fox's cogent, well-paced production rests primarily with Nussbaum and the equally masterful Brooks.

In a play about uncovering one's inherent virtue, Fox has cast two of Chicago's most genuine actors. And while Sachs' characters fall into the standard-issue category -- reserved, erudite scholar meets coarse, garrulous bartender -- Brooks and Nussbaum are ever truthful and never contrived.

Nussbaum plays Lionel Percy, former curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and expert assigned by the International Foundation for Art Research to determine whether the painting out-of-work bartender Maude Gutman (Brooks, in a performance of hardscrabble dignity) bought for a couple of bucks as a gag gift is a lost Pollock masterwork or a fake.

Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) invites former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and abstract expressionist expert Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) to evaluate her thrift-store find, which she believes is a lost masterpiece by Jackson Pollock, in Stephen Sachs' dramedy "Bakersfield Mist." It runs through Oct. 15 at TimeLine Theatre.
Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) invites former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and abstract expressionist expert Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) to evaluate her thrift-store find, which she believes is a lost masterpiece by Jackson Pollock, in Stephen Sachs' dramedy "Bakersfield Mist." It runs through Oct. 15 at TimeLine Theatre. - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch
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"I'm a fake buster," he informs Maude within seconds of his arrival at Maude's trailer, which she's furnished with garbage pickings and garage sale finds. (Kudos to set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and properties designer Mary O'Dowd for the convincingly cluttered set).

Declining Maude's offer of whiskey and wrinkling his nose at the glass of water she provides, Lionel makes little effort to mask his condescension. But polite disdain and subtle digs don't dissuade the coarse, plain-spoken Maude. She may lack a formal education, but Maude is a smart cookie. An aesthetic sensibility rooted in West Coast kitsch suggests she knows nothing about fine art. But she knows how to search Google, and she's done her homework on Pollock, whose painting -- if legitimate -- could fetch more than $50 million by Lionel's estimate.

Notwithstanding their socio-economic and educational divide, Lionel and Maude make worthy adversaries, perhaps because each has so much to lose. For Lionel, a mistake as to the painting's authenticity could cost him his reputation and the career he loves. For Maude, a woman desperate for a miracle after a lifetime of disappointment, the stakes are just as high.

Trust in her instincts (a trait she and Lionel share) means Maude refuses to settle for less than what she deserves.

Possessing a Pollock wouldn't just provide her financial security, it would pluck her from obscurity. It would make her someone who matters. Someone like Lionel whose love of art is exceeded only by his devotion to truth.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) debate art and opinions in TimeLine Theatre's "Bakersfield Mist."
Maude (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Lionel (Mike Nussbaum) debate art and opinions in TimeLine Theatre's "Bakersfield Mist." - Courtesy of Lara Goetsch

For these people, art isn't just a life's passion or a commodity. It's a validation they desperately need.

"The world needs to know its true worth," says Maude whose statement refers to more than the painting.

Whether she and Lionel realize it or not, when they talk about art, they're talking about themselves. Brooks' and Nussbaum's performances suggest deep down, these characters comprehend the double meanings.

There is more to Lionel and Maude than meets the eye and this duo plays those nuances like a virtuoso plays a Stradivarius.

That's what Nussbaum and Brooks are: virtuosos. We're lucky to have them.

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