Amid the squiggles and splatters of her life, unemployed bartender Maude Gutman grabs an ugly painting for $3 that just might be her ticket from rags to riches.
She’s convinced her thrift-store find is a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, and against his better judgment, a persnickety art expert from New York City comes to her trailer home in a poor part of Bakersfield, Calif., convinced that Gutman and her paintings are frauds.
What could a woman with no education and meager means possibly know about art? And even if she did, would the upper-crust expert see past his class discrimination and accept the painting if it were an actual Pollock?
“If you could imagine Roseanne Barr from her ‘Roseanne’ show in the same room as Fraiser Crane from ‘Fraiser’ having an argument about art, it’s a lot like that,” said Sean Christopher Lewis, director of “Bakersfield Mist.” The thought-provoking comedy opens Friday (9/8) and continues through Oct. 1 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.
“It’s a lot about authenticity; it’s a lot about what we choose to believe,” said Lewis, 38, of Iowa City, who also serves as the professional theater’s artistic director. “There’s a really great point where one of the characters is faced with unquestionable evidence, and their response is, ‘I choose not to believe that.’”
He likes that the story has some bite.
“It has some great class issues at the center of it. It’s a way for us to have a comedy that still has some real meat,” he said. “It’s hard to find comedies that are actually talking about things when they aren’t telling jokes, so it’s a great way of doing both.
“It has a little bit of escapism, but it also has a little bit more. It’s not very heavy-handed at all, but there’s a little bit of substance and a lot of humor.”
When contemplating the show, he could immediately hear actors Tim Budd and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers in the banter.
“This is a showcase for both of them. These are the types of roles they both excel at,” he said. “It became a no-brainer at that point to produce this.”
Riverside’s intimate venue also works well for the two-person play, giving scenic and lighting designer S. Benjamin Farrar lots of leeway in turning Maude’s trailer into its own work of art, Lewis said. The outline of the trailer frames the action on a raised stage that’s been compressed to have “more of a Chicago storefront feel,” which he said helps bring the action closer to the audience.
“Maude’s entire house made up of found items,” Lewis said, “and this is a good time to do it. With (students) moving in and out of apartments, there’s been tons of things on the sidewalks, and we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s such a weird object, I feel like Maude would immediately grab that.’”
A bonus is the region’s vested interest in Pollock, because of his sweeping “Mural,” donated to the University of Iowa in 1947.
“Bakersfield Mist” also is a good precursor for the rest of Riverside’s 2017-18 season.
“It’s really important for me that each show totally capitalizes on what we do well and who have,” Lewis said. “I’ve been looking at the strongest actors we have encountered, and a lot of times thinking, what is something I haven’t seen them in, that can really express them in a new way to the audience and that can also be a real challenge but gift to them ...”
He also has been thinking about the conversations the plays can spark.
The result is a mix of new works, including “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a comedy about making connections, Oct. 20 to Nov. 5; a bold look at bringing children into the world today in “Lungs” from Dec. 1 to 17; the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Detroit,” tearing into the suburban dream, from Jan. 19 to Feb. 11; the award-winning “Apples in Winter” by his wife, playwright Jennifer Fawcett, from March 2 to 18; ending with his own dark comedy, “Tooth and Nail,” looking at “faith, sexuality and the state of being Irish,” from April 13 to 29.
Sustainability for the theater is an ongoing goal, he said, but this season, he’s looking at ways to “reconnect with the artist community, bring up the quality of writing, with the best of what’s being written around country.” And ultimately, to give the actors and artists a reason to stay.
WHAT: “Bakersfield Mist”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (9/8) to Oct. 1; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $30 adult, $28 over age 60 and under age 30, $18 ages 18 and under and student rush 10 minutes before showtime, $12 Thursday student special; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/bakersfieldmist
EXTRA: Post-show talkback follows the Sept. 22 performance