High culture collides head-on with low in “Bakersfield Mist,” in which ex-bartender Maude Gutman tries everything — and we mean everything — to persuade a snooty art expert that a painting she bought for a few bucks at a thrift store is a long-lost Jackson Pollock. The brisk two-hander, now running at the Fountain Theatre, is written and directed by Stephen Sachs, who co-founded the Fountain in 1990 and remains its co-artistic director.
Why did you write this play?
I loved the idea of bringing these two wonderful characters together — this bawdy, salty-tongued, boozy lady and this sophisticated art expert from New York — and have them butt heads. The conflict in the play is that both of these characters, who come from opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum, have a deep personal relationship with art. It means something very profound to both of them for very different reasons.
Describe the experience of working with actors Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett.
I wrote the play specifically with them in mind. The two of them are so much like these characters. Jenny is a very straight-talking, honest, direct, funny, emotional person; Nick is a Brit who has a certain kind of sophistication, intelligence — very erudite. We had a ball.
Were you a fan of Jackson Pollock before “Bakersfield Mist”?
I was a fan but didn’t know much about him. Doing research for the play, I grew to appreciate him even more. His kind of demonic spirit, his inner storm, is very much a character in this play.
Do you prefer to direct your own work?
I do enjoy directing my own stuff, but I’m ruthless with myself, the playwright, as a director. I don’t treat my own written word as something sacred if it doesn’t work.
The play is getting a lot of attention. When you were writing it, did you ever think to yourself, “This is good”?
This was one of those instances when the characters really came alive for me. I was channeling them, almost like taking dictation. It’s a blessing when that happens, because it doesn’t always happen that way.
Have you ever been in a situation like Maude’s, believing in something’s value against all probability?
Doing theater at all — whether you’re in Los Angeles or anywhere in this country — can be an uphill battle. Part of the energy goes into creating the art, and the other half goes into screaming to the world that the art matters.
Above: Sachs at the Fountain. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times