SR review: “Bug” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Tracy Letts’s flesh-crawling comic thriller rides a timely wave of suspicion in a superb new production

Theater review by Kris Vire

Here’s how stealthily David Cromer’s new production of Bug creeps up on you: Midway through the play’s first scene, at the moment when Agnes (Carrie Coon) and Peter (Namir Smallwood) are first alone together, walls of plastic sheeting suddenly appear from the void surrounding Takeshi Kata’s dingy motel-room set.

That’s how I experienced it, anyway, even as I immediately started questioning my own perception. Wait, was that there before?, my brain said. I could have sworn that was empty space. Ultimately I decided it must have been a trick of Heather Gilbert’s brilliantly nuanced lighting design—that, or my mind was playing tricks on me.

And that’s exactly the space that Tracy Letts’s deeply unsettling comic thriller wants to put you in. Coon’s hard-living Agnes, a long-term resident at this Oklahoma motel, spends most of her waitressing tips on hard liquor and crack cocaine to numb her hard-earned pain. (If the play was set today, Agnes’s drug of choice might be meth, but Letts wrote Bug in 1996.) Peter is an intense young drifter—and, we soon learn, a veteran of the first Gulf War—who stops by for a drink with Agnes’s best friend R.C. (a delightfully blowsy Jennifer Engstrom), and stays behind when R.C.’s called away.

As Agnes and Peter tentatively connect over the next few days—and as Peter provides a needed buffer to protect against Agnes’s freshly paroled dirtbag ex, Goss (Steve Key)—it seems as though these two damaged souls might be good for one another.

And then Peter finds a bug.

He wakes up thrashing in bed, claiming to have been bitten by something—“like an aphid,” he says, as he frantically strips the bed to find it. When he does, Agnes can’t see anything at first; soon, however, she’s going along with his insistence that they have an infestation. Agnes picks up Peter’s itch.

Peter’s paranoia seems to grow exponentially, manifesting in weeping sores on his body and manic theorizing about the government conspiracy that’s burrowed under his skin. Smallwood, a rising star at Steppenwolf, is simply remarkable here. His initial soft-spoken placidity can be interrupted by the slightest bump—the rumble of the air conditioner coming to life, the chirp of a possible cricket—that seem to pierce his aura like a pebble hitting the water, causing a momentary ripple of fear and rage.

As Peter submits further and further to the depths, Smallwood skillfully turns up the dial until he fully commands the room. It’s almost easy to understand why Agnes allows herself to be pulled under with him; Coon doesn’t so much play her character’s grief and loneliness as she exudes it.

Cromer’s perfectly paced revival couldn’t have asked for better timing. Monday night’s opening performance coincided with the extraordinary meltdown of the Iowa caucuses, whose many irregularities led some Democratic campaigns to allege malpractice; Twitter boiled over with cries of collusion against one candidate or another. And as I write this on Thursday morning, the president is giving a meandering post-impeachment press conference alleging criminal activity by a long list of his personal enemies.

There’s a thick fog of suspicion in the air. And so you can see the appeal of marking it all up to the manipulations of shadowy forces. Letts cannily brings us down that tempting path. Late in the play, there’s a shift, marked by a scene change so audacious that it earned a deserved round of applause on opening night, followed by the arrival of a doctor (Randall Arney) whose behavior is odd enough to make us wonder if he’s real.

It’s as if, like Agnes, we’ve been pulled into Peter’s delusions. And here Smallwood returns to preternatural calm as he coaches Coon’s spiraling Agnes through Peter’s grand unifying theory. Unlikely as it is, it seems to bring her some relief. In a world full of uncertainty and pain, it would be comforting to connect all the dots.

[Read my interview with Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts at Chicago magazine.]


Bug

Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1650 N Halsted St). By Tracy Letts. Directed by David Cromer.

Cast: Carrie Coon (Agnes White), Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans), Steve Key (Jerry Goss), Jennifer Engstrom (R.C.), Randall Arney (Dr. Sweet).

Designers: Takeshi Kata (scenic), Heather Gilbert (lighting), Sarah Laux (costumes), Josh Schmidt (sound), Matt Hawkins (fight choreographer), Tonia Sina (intimacy choreographer). Assistant director/dramaturg: Sydney Charles. Stage manager: Christine D. Freeburg.

Running time: 2 hours; one intermission. Through March 15. Tickets ($20–$125) at steppenwolf.org.

Photographs by Michael Brosilow.


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