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Bright performances shine through in 'Bakersfield Mist' at Lancaster Opera House

When applied to the weather, "mist" refers to a condition that is not as substantial as rain, not as airy as fog, a rather lightweight way to get wet.

"Bakersfield Mist," making its regional premiere at the Lancaster Opera House, shares a similar in-between status. Well-acted and breezily paced, Stephen Sachs' one-act play is lightweight, enjoyable entertainment that flirts with deeper water but never dives in.

The story is based on the true case of Teri Horton, a California woman who bought an ugly painting at a thrift shop as a joke and then was told by a school art teacher it resembled works by Jackson Pollock. Her efforts to authenticate the painting as a Pollock made international news and became the basis of a documentary film.

Sachs lifts mightily from Horton's story, then garnishes it with sarcastic one-liners mixed with melodrama. All the action takes place in the Bakersfield, Calif. trailer home of Maude Guzman, who (with the inspired help of set designer David Dwyer) has decorated every inch of the walls and shelving with thrift store knickknacks and pictures.

Mary McMahon inhabits the character of hard-drinking Maude so thoroughly that we might worry about her liver. From the get-go she owns the stage and the room, whether she's shouting profanities at the neighbor's dogs or spilling her unrequested life story to an art expert who has come to evaluate her possible Pollock.

Tom Owen has the less sympathetic task here as Lionel Percy, a haughty art connoisseur whose shirt is so stuffed it's a wonder the buttons don't pop off. Unlike Maude, Percy is not comfortable in his surroundings. Disgusted would be a better word. However, instead of just getting down to business so he can get out, Percy feels the need to first recite his entire CV for this woman for whom he has such contempt.

Unknown to Percy, Maude has done research of her own on both him and Pollock, leading the show into more fictional territory with a spontaneous round of one-upping over whose life has turned out worse.

Director Scott Behrend, moonlighting from his regular gig at Road Less Traveled Productions, uses a deft hand in moving his actors around the confined battleground of their class and culture war, and achieves the biggest payoffs in the shows most comic moments.

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Overall, though, we find ourselves wanting more. Maude and Percy both clearly have interesting feelings about the role of art. She has wallpapered her home with prints, paintings, posters, postcards, graphics and needlework projects. He has risen to the heights of the professional art world. But when it comes down to Maude's ugly-painting-would-be-Pollock, the conversation just keeps circling over whether it is "real" and valuable.

Sachs also loses traction with the imagined back-stories of personal suffering, as we try to reconcile those with the characters we are seeing onstage. Who is supposed to be a victim, and of what? Maude, an enthusiastic day-drinker who worked as a bartender, laments losing loved ones to alcohol. Lionel conflates his professional woes with his personal problems while showing irritation about everyone but himself.

Even so, it holds together long enough for some hearty laughs and interesting ideas about who gets to decide what is real and what is fake in this world. For whatever that's worth, it makes for an easy-to-enjoy 80 minutes of theater.

Theater review

"Bakersfield Mist"

2.5 stars (out of four)

Presented Friday through Sunday, through May 26, at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Tickets are $25 general admission, $23 for seniors, $10 for students with ID; at LancOpera.org or by calling 683-1776.

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