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Authenticating meaning of life

With ‘Mist,’ playwright inspired by story of Jackson Pollock painting

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2011

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Maude Gutman is a piece of work, a gun-toting ex-bartender who peppers her speech with F-bombs while tossing back shots of Jack Daniel’s. Lionel Percy is a refined art expert more accustomed to sipping expensive champagne with his high-society patrons. When Lionel’s limousine pulls into Maude’s California trailer park, he gets more than he bargained for, starting with the dogs that set upon him outside her door.

What brings him to Bakersfield is a $3 junk shop painting that Maude bought for a gag gift, which may or may not be a Jackson Pollock worth millions. A prestigious foundation has sent Lionel to the trailer park to certify the artwork’s value - or shoot it down as a forgery. But in Stephen Sachs’s play “Bakersfield Mist,’’ the painting is not the only thing being authenticated.

“I feel my play is less about the meaning of art than what makes life meaningful,’’ Sachs says.

The New England premiere of “Bakersfield Mist’’ runs through Sept. 4 at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, with Paula Langton as Maude and Ken Cheeseman as Lionel. It’s part of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere’’ that will see the production move to New Repertory Theatre in Watertown for a run Feb. 26-March 18, 2012.

Sachs’s play explores the relationship each of the two characters have with art as their conversation becomes combative and intimate by turns.

“It’s all about being connected to something greater than ourselves,’’ the playwright says. “Both Lionel and Maude yearn for that connection to something larger, something that will give their life meaning and hope - for very different, specific, yet profound reasons.’’

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because Sachs was inspired by the real-life tale of retired truck driver Teri Horton, the subject of the 2006 documentary “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?!’’ as well as a “60 Minutes’’ segment.

Sachs says he read as much as he could about the real-life case, saw “60 Minutes’’ and the documentary, and did some research into Pollock’s work and into art fraud. Lionel, Sachs cheerfully admits, bears a resemblance to renowned expert Thomas Hoving, one of the art-world figures drawn into the case. But Maude and Lionel are very specific beings, he says, not clones of the real-life players in the story.

There are still some people who look at one of Pollock’s paint-splattered canvases and think they could do just as well, notes director Jeff Zinn, who is artistic director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. “This play is not so much about the issue of ‘What is art?’ as it is about the journeys of these two people,’’ he says.

“What ignited my imagination was the idea of bringing these two colorful characters together, people who are at polar opposite ends of the cultural and social spectrum,’’ says Sachs. “The thought of bringing those two together and having them collide was just too irresistible.

“This was one of those instances that you pray for, where the characters speak for themselves. it was more like channeling than writing. That’s rare when it happens, and a blessing when it happens.’’

By the time he finished writing, he already had two actors in mind, Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, old friends of his who are married in real life. Sachs directed the play’s world premiere in June at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, where he is co-artistic director. The well-reviewed production has already been extended through Sept. 3 and will be extended again into October, he says.

“Even before the play opened in Los Angeles, there were already several productions lined up,’’ Sachs says, including a planned New York one next year. “The play has just had a life of its own, from the very first reading we did,’’ which was in Denver late last year, he says.

Questions of art and authenticity also had one odd real-life echo.

The Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., had commissioned a play based on “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?!’’ for the 2011-2012 season, but pulled it from the schedule in July when it learned of Sachs’s work.

‘Enemies’ returns For the second time, Barrington Stage Company finds itself booking more dates for a play by Mark St. Germain. After a successful summer run, “The Best of Enemies’’ will return to the company’s Main Stage in Pittsfield for shows Oct. 5-16. (A planned production of “Lord of the Flies’’ has been pushed back to October 2012.) “Enemies’’ tells the story of the relationship between a Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan and a black civil rights activist during the desegregation of the Durham, N.C., schools in 1971. Barrington also booked additional runs in 2009-10 for St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,’’ now playing off-Broadway.

Discount tickets Summer Festival Theater at Roxbury Latin has dropped prices for its final weekend of performances this season, to $20 for regular admission and $15 for students, seniors, veterans, and teachers. The schedule features “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’’ tonight at 8 and “Twelfth Night’’ tomorrow at 5 p.m. at the Roxbury Latin School, 101 St. Theresa Ave., West Roxbury.

The two productions feature the fledgling company’s artistic director Ross MacDonald, artistic associate Elizabeth Rimar, and founding member Jack Cutmore-Scott. MacDonald directs the Shakespeare, while New Repertory Theatre artistic associate Bridget Kathleen O’Leary directs the Tom Stoppard comedy. Tickets at the door (cash or check) or at www.brownpapertickets.com. Information or reservations: 617-325-4920 x383.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

BAKERSFIELD MIST At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Julie Harris Stage, 2357 Route 6, Wellfleet, through Sept. 4. Tickets: $29. 508-349-9428, www.what.org.