‘Bug’ gives voice  to dystopian angst

Carrie Coon (left) as Agnes White and Namir Smallwood as Peter Evans in “Bug.” 

“Bug” is very high on my list of plays that are likely to make your skin crawl and your brain buzz. Tracy Letts's blend of psychological thriller, science fiction, and love story is fraught with enough paranoia, conspiracy theories, and creepiness to give anyone nightmares. And even though it premiered in 1996, the dystopian drama seems even more relevant in this age of falsity and fear-mongering.

Although I regrettably missed the original Chicago production in 2001 at A Red Orchid Theatre (starring a young Michael Shannon), the much larger Steppenwolf's revival is everything anyone could wish for. Director David Cromer casts the show extremely well, and his pacing is masterful. The opening scenes are deceptively low key, but the tension slowly builds and builds to a point of no return as the two main characters become totally committed to each other.

Carrie Coon gives a riveting performance as Agnes White, an acutely lonely woman who gradually gets caught up in a delusion. She works as a waitress and lives in the seedy motel room outside Oklahoma City where the action takes place. Still grieving over the loss of her young son almost a decade earlier—he disappeared from her shopping cart at the grocery store—she's plagued by the occasional appearance of her abusive ex-con ex-husband, Jerry Goss (Steve Key), who shows up wanting to crash for a few nights.

When we first see Agnes, she's drinking, smoking crack cocaine (which she does all the time), and deciding whether to go party with her lesbian biker friend R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom). She opts not to go, as does the drifter who's arrived with R.C. His name we soon learn is Peter Evans (Namir Smallwood), and he's quiet, hesitant, respectful, well-spoken, and precise. Agnes is wary of this stranger (the fact that Smallwood is black adds to his position as an outsider), but when she finds out he has no place to go, she invites him to stay with her.

Their attachment to each other escalates from there, fueled by little acts of kindness on his part (especially in contrast to Jerry) and their mutual neediness. She even takes him to bed, but things start to get strange as his story emerges—and he starts seeing bugs on his body and all over the room.

A Gulf War veteran who might be AWOL, Peter increasingly betrays his paranoia about the war, the Oklahoma City bombing, UFOs, cult suicides, and secret government experiments on soldiers, including him. Agnes is skeptical at first—she's not even sure she sees the bugs Peter says are very small aphids—but she soon succumbs because she loves him, though some of his measures to get rid of the bugs, especially from his body, are horrifying (squeamish theatergoers beware). Indeed, Agnes arguably descends into madness as, increasingly frenzied, she starts to see herself as the great bug mother.

But before that, the couple gets a visit from a Dr. Sweet (Randall Arney), who says Peter was his patient and wants to take him back. However, he's peculiar enough to make us wonder if there might be something to Peter's theories about experimentation.

The production design also throws us off balance. Takeshi Kata's impeccable-looking motel room set has some odd details and undergoes two drastic transformations that prompted spontaneous audience applause on opening night. Heather Gilbert's lighting design ranges from garish suggestions of the outside world to tasteful darkness for the nude scenes, while Sarah Laux's costumes are apropos. Josh Schmidt's sound design includes the loud whir of helicopters and the quiet chirp of a smoke detector mistaken for a bug by Peter who rips it off the wall and disposes of it, telling Agnes it contains carcinogenic material. How much is all in his head remains a little up in the air.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter whether Peter is a paranoid schizophrenic or not. What is most compelling about “Bug” is the way it shows one person being co-opted by another's apparent delusions, be it for love or some other reason. And that's dangerous, even if the delusions have an element of truth. Steppenwolf's production brings the play vividly to life, thanks to Cromer's direction, brilliant acting, and savvy staging.

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