What if you bought a painting in a thrift shop for a few dollars, later coming to believe it was a lost masterpiece worth millions? There have been a number of such cases, with the internet and shows like Antiques Road Show and American Pickers shining a light on the prospect of unearthed treasures.
One particular real-life case – a California woman who stumbled across what was later argued to be an original Jackson Pollock – became the basis of a play, Bakersfield Mist, that’s the latest production from the Elmira Theatre Company.
Since its premiere in 2011, Bakersfield Mist has been staged a number of times. In choosing the play, ETC is looking to put its own spin on the tale.
“As an actor I’ve learned through many years that basing your performance on some well-know person’s performance is a bad idea. As a director, perhaps even more so,” said director Brian Otto.
Although there have been numerous productions of the play, none of those would impact how Otto or the actors approach their performance, he added.
“Every production of a play is a new interpretation. Trying to copy what someone else has done before is rarely successful.”
Based on true events, the play follows Maude Gutman (Jennifer Cornish) an unemployed bartender living in a trailer park who believes the painting she bought in a thrift store for $3 as a gag gift is really an undiscovered Jackson Pollock worth millions. New York art historian and expert Lionel Percy (Trevor Smith Diggins) arrives at Maude’s trailer to evaluate the painting.
“Through the course of the play they come to know each other, make some connections to understand a little bit more about each other’s world. There’s comedy, there’s pathos, there’s some real soul baring and sharing, so there’s a lot to offer emotionally,” Otto explained.
Working with Cornish and Smith Diggins has been “wonderful,” said Otto.
“Both of them are really fine actors, two of the more respected and finer actors in the region, for sure, which has made my job as the director quite a bit easier. They have lots of ideas and lots of experiences and lots of insights,” he said.
This play presents some unique challenges, particularly with Cornish’s character, Otto noted.
“Jen and I have some pretty clear ideas of what the character is and what she is like. So in terms of the set and the costumes and the colours we’re choosing for this set, we’re using what we can as a character analysis of Martha. She is both…the redneck trailer park character, but she’s also extremely perceptive and far more intelligent and informed than she at first appears.”
There are also a lot of elements that led ETC into choosing it as its next production.
“There’s such a variety [and] there’s some really good humour. There’s something bordering on slapstick, I suppose in a couple of spots, but there’s also some extreme tension, some real serious confrontations between the two,” Otto added.
Playwright Stephen Sachs, founding artistic director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, drew on the real-life story of Teri Horton for Bakersfield Mist. In 1991, Horton paid $5 for a painting at a thrift shop, intending it as a gag-gift to cheer up a friend. Informed by a local art teacher it might be a Pollock, she spent years looking to get it authenticated before dying in 2019 at the age of 86, the painting’s status still unknown. Despite being offered up to $9 million for the piece, she held out for $50 million. The painting remained unsold.
The ETC production of Sachs’ take on the tale, Bakersfield Mist, runs from April 29-May 14 at the organization’s Howard Avenue facility. Tickets and more information can be found online. ETC is currently at 75 per cent capacity, and audience members will be required to wear masks.