Phoenix: Story of treasure in unexpected place

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time there was a woman, a trailer-park resident, who purchased an interesting abstract painting from a junk shop. Somebody told her it could actually be a long-lost work by a famous artist.

She reportedly replied, “Who the f#@& is Jackson Pollock?”

This true story is the touchstone for the comic drama “Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs, on the main stage of the Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 19.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt is Maude Gutman (not the actual woman’s name, so there is room for dramatic license), hard drinking and filthy mouthed, but refreshingly honest and likable. Her cozy home appears to have been invaded by an antique mall thrift store, but she treasures every trashy trinket and questionable bit of wall art. Given the set decoration and California climate, it’s anyone’s guess whether the decorated Christmas tree indicates whether it’s the holidays or not.

She nervously awaits the arrival of fussy art expert Lionel Percy (Joshua Coomer), who can’t help but have a sour first impression of this situation, even before he gets to see the potential Pollock. 

But gaze upon it he does, and using only the expertise in his brain and the “blink” of his eyes, he confidently declares the painting a clever forgery.

Maude refuses to accept this. “What if you’re wrong?” she demands.

Thus the battle of wits is engaged, though for Maude it began before Lionel even entered her home. And the New York expert who literally wrote the book on this kind of art (more than once!) finds that while she hasn’t been to college, Maude has come to know a lot about Jackson Pollock.

Like all great theatre – or seemingly random color swirls on a white canvas – this play resonates beyond what we first encounter, as with the help of some purloined whiskey these two delve deeply into what art is, what evidence is necessary to confirm its value, and what it truly means. As art reflects life, what is genuine and what is false about the work that is us? Director and Phoenix regular Constance Macy gets a wonderful, gritty, and frequently hilarious performance from this duo, climaxing in a moment that – even if you know how this event actually resolved – has you on the edge of your seat. 

Not your typical December show, but, as I noted, there is a tree, and a bowling pin painted as a snowman, and plenty of spirit. It would be a shame to miss “Bakersfield Mist” at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. For info and tickets, call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.