Theater Review: BUG (Steppenwolf Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on November 17, 2021

in Theater-Chicago


The Steppenwolf Theatre’s extraordinary production of Tracy Letts’s Bug was winding down its highly praised production in March 2020 when the drama was forced to close, like other theater activity, because of the pandemic scourge. Now the Steppenwolf is reviving that production for a limited run with the key players returning and it remains as disturbing and gripping as it was 20 months ago.

Bug takes us into a world of paranoia, government conspiracy theory, obsession, and sex, garnished with an improbable love story and bit of very black humor. They all funnel into a shock ending that should leave spectators, especially those who don’t know what’s coming, stunned. The audience will leave the theater considering if they have seen a nightmarish fantasy, a hyper-realistic horror story, a grotesque speculation about American society today, or a creepy blend of the three.

All the action takes place in a shabby motel room near Oklahoma City. Agnes is a 44-year old cocktail waitress who lives alone in the room, with visits from her lesbian girlfriend R.C. Agnes is lonely, rootless, and sex starved. She also lives in fear of her redneck thug of an ex-husband Jerry Gross, just released from prison and returning to menace Agnes.

Early in the play, Agnes receives an unexplained visit from Peter Evans, a 27-year old drifter with a mysterious past (we eventually learn he is AWOL from the army). Peter initially comes across as a low-keyed character but soon convinces Agnes that he has been injected with microchips of mind-controlling aphids in an army hospital during the Gulf War. Peter tells his bizarre story with disarming conviction and the emotionally needy Agnes, who is now sleeping with the man, buys into his wild story, accepting that swarms of bugs have found a nest in her blood.

The narrative turns feverish as Peter and Agnes strive to conquer the invading parasites, until their battle reaches a hair-raising climax that leaves the audience shaken, unsure how much they have seen on the stage is reality and how much is hallucination.

Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood recreate their performances as Agnew and Peter and it’s hard to imagine any other duo in the roles. Coon starts out as a blue collar country woman drifting into middle age with no prospects. The woman is ripe in her emotional neediness for a love affair with the disarming Peter. Smallwood builds his character into a man consumed by his battle with the blood-invading bugs. His story seems outlandish but maybe he has been the victim of medical experiments intended to eventually take over the world. Consider the real life horrifying Tuskegee medical experiments inflicted on black patients for 40 years, starting in 1932.

Three supporting actors fill in the narrative with spot-on cameo appearances, especially Steve Key as the scary menacing Jerry Gross. Jennifer Engstrom is fine as Agnes’s girl friend and Randall Arney deftly plays a military doctor who is both sinister and soothing.

David Cromer’s directing shapes what could have been an extended exercise in sensationalism into a story too convincing in its telling to be dismissed as a two-hour venture into fear and hysteria. For sure the performances he draws from Coon and Smallwood are breathtaking in their credible intensity. And these actors have to perform the show eight times a week? Amazing!

A collection of skilled designers serve as co-partners in bringing the Letts script to visual and aural theatrical life. They include Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Sarah Laux (costume design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), and Josh Schmidt (especially important for his atmospheric buzzing sound effects).

Bug would be worth seeing as merely a gripping lurid shocker, but it actually contains a tinge of dramatic credibility; all that paranoia and dementia are not just the product of the playwright’s skill at fabricating mistrust, suspicion and terror. Just pick up a newspaper or watch cable news. Letts is a current-events chronicler as much as the author of a must-see slice of theatrical creativity.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N Halsted Street
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat & Sun at 3 & 8
ends on December 12, 2021
for tickets ($20-110), call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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