At the Steppenwolf Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –The Steppenwolf Theatre revival of Tracy Letts’s “Bug” is the hot button Chicagoland production of the season. The show has already been extended for a week and the entire run is a near sellout, which proves that there is an eager audience for plays that deal in paranoia, violence, sex, and conspiracy—all wrapped up in a masterful production that will have viewers fascinated and shuddering for roughly two hours.
“Bug” originated in 2001 at the small and adventurous Black Orchid Theater in Chicago. Since then it has become an international success on the stage and in a 2006 film adaptation. The current version is directed by the estimable David Cromer, a theater artist with roots in Chicago theater and now a top A list director nationally.
Earlier versions of “Bug” were presented in storefront-type theaters that placed the spectators almost within touching distance of the performers, further tightening the claustrophobic grip of this mesmerizing and scary story. The Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre is much larger and offers visual opportunities out of the reach of a smaller and less equipped venue. Cromer seizes the opportunity to open up “Bug” with its larger playing area and more sophisticated and compelling special effects. It’s a different show from the earlier small scale productions but Letts and Cromer have still created a freshened thriller that takes the audience down some pretty unsettling paths.
All the action takes place in a single room in a downscale hotel in Oklahoma. Agnes is a 40-something druggy leading a downscale life. Her only friend is a lesbian named R.C. The two attend a party where Agnes meets a drifter named Peter Evans. The love starved Agnes brings him back to her hotel room and the couple launch into an improbable and disturbing relationship. There is an appearance by Jerry Goss, Agnes’s thuggish ex husband. We first see him as a brutal bully, but that may not be the character’s real story.
Reality goes out the window as the play moves on. Peter, a man on the run from the army, insists that he has been the victim of medical experiments involving insects and computer chips. Initially Peter sounds ludicrously deluded, but as the tone of the narrative shifts we are forced to take the enigmatic Peter more seriously. Gradually Agnes falls under the spell of Peter’s conspiracy fixation about being victimized by a conspiracy the whole national power establishment–the government, the military, major corporations, and the FBI. Is Peter really delusionary or is his horror story fantastical but true? The play builds to an apocalyptic ending and the audience departs the theater shaken and pondering whether Peter was as crazy as he first sounded.
At my performance, the capacity audience sat in breath-holding silence for much of the evening. The play’s reputation as a shocker obviously was on the collective minds of the spectators. They sat on the edges of their seats anxiously awaiting a jolt from something unexpected and shocking. They were rewarded with a handful of legitimately shuddering frights plus gross-out moments that had the crowd squealing in revulsion. This is not a play that goes easy on the patron’s sensibilities.
The five-member cast is well up to the mark in acting out Letts’s blend of horror, science fiction, and black humor. Carrie Coon, the playwright’s wife, is a stunning Agnes, a vulnerable and lonely figure at struggling at the bottom of the social scale, attempting to avoid her violent ex husband and yearning for the young son she thinks is dead. Agnes clings to Peter as an emotional lifeline and they go down in emotional and real flames together.
Namir Smallwood is brilliant in the difficult role of Peter, weirdly convincing in his insistence that he has been the victim of those appalling medical experiments. Peter rarely raises his voice in contrast to Agnes’s ascending hysteria and at the final blackout the viewer isn’t certain on what side of the sanity fence the character stands. We can accept him as a persuasive nutcase, but on the other hand….. Smallwood is an African American who is clearly cast on merit alone. There is no reference to race in the dialogue. But Peter as a black man could reinforce the sense of persecution the character feels at the hands of his powerful enemies. That could be a reviewer’s reach, but there are precedents to Peter’s accusations. Consider, for example, the real life Tuskegee medical experiments.
The supporting cast consists of Jennifer Engstrom as the blunt R.C. Steve Key is Jerry Goss, a nasty piece of goods who makes the audience uncomfortable every time he appears on stage. Randall Arney makes a telling late appearance as a smooth talking doctor who implicitly if not explicitly lends credence to Peter’s insistence that the establishment is out to silence him.
The designers make crucial contributions to the fear drenched atmosphere of the play. In particular Heather Graham’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s sound effects underscore the subtle creepy feeling that forces the viewer to assess how much of story is in the disordered minds of Agnes and Peter and how much is the real deal. Takeshi Kata designed the set and Sarah Laux designed the costumes. Props also to Matt Hawkins for his fight choreography and Tonia Sina for her intimacy choreography (and she had plenty of intimacy to choreograph).
The revival of “Bug” comes at a time in American life when conspiracy theories abound and paranoia is part of the social air we breathe. The premises in “Bug” may come across as outlandish, but then again, consider the record shaped by the social media and warring political forces. What was once disregarded as fanciful now appears worthy of consideration, and apprehension. So for many spectators “Bug” invites comparison with parallels in real life. But “Bug” carves out a special place in the modern American theater canon primarily because it is a splendid dramatic foray into the fearsome unknown. No production can claim to be definitive version of this shifting narrative. The David Cromer version is not the last word in Letts’s narrative but it remains a stand-alone classic.
“Bug” gets a rating ofstars.
”Bug” runs through March 15 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30, Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $122. Call (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.