Tracy Letts’ BUG is currently in production at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Just opened, and already extended by audience demand through March 15, 2020, the production, a tour de force comeback directed by David Cromer featuring Randall Arney, Carrie Coon, Jennifer Engstrom, Steve Key and Namir Smallwood, is a brilliantly written and compellingly acted performance, with wonderful stagecraft.
The focus is all on the characters, and unlike most plays, screenplays, and even novels, there is a thorough development of their personae and an illuminating look inside each of their motivations and relationships. Having said that, upfront kudos is due to the superb production team, for lighting (Heather Gilbert); aural ambience (Josh Schmidt); intimacy and fight choreography (Tonia Sina and Matt Hawkins); costumes (Sarah Laux) text, dialect and scenery (Gigi Buffington and Takeshi Kata), which combined to form the bravura physical atmosphere of the show.
All of the action takes place within the 4 walls of a seedy motel room somewhere in Oklahoma, home to emotionally numb Agnes, whose losses and genuine fears for her survival are staggering and legitimate. Played by Coon with a soul-numbing transparent weariness, she survives on near-constant infusions of alcohol, weed and coke.
From the get-go, a distinct sense of unease permeates the atmosphere, despite the elaborately casual grace of the performers. As the action progresses, and paranoia infests the protagonists, we bear witness to the destruction of mentation, of human connections, and ultimately of all sensation. Hand in hand with the droning buzz of tension, accented by unusual intrusive sound effects, is a deeply black and oddball strain of absurdist humor: a truly “Steppenwolfian” melange.
Agnes has a single friend, R.C., played with sangfroid and naked fondness by Engstrom, who brings over the seemingly mild-mannered homeless vet, Peter, portrayed in a riveting performance of swiftly escalating point-by-point insanity by Smallwood. Is it proxemics only that causes Agnes and Peter to swiftly fall in love and out of sanity?
Peter’s deeply rooted madness makes itself known after 48 hours of cohabitation. Agnes tries to understand, tries to find external support to allow her to resist, and then succumbs to naked fear of Jerry, her truly menacing ex-con ex, acted by Key, whose persecution and the sheer embodied violence of his smarmy nature would lead anyone to hide away.
Leo Tolstoy posited that art can be “infectious”. So can mental illness. In a bellwether mini-scene before Agnes and Peter have their single act of sexual congress, Peter heads into the john, but it is Jerry who emerges and sheds blood. By the following morning, the couple, barely awake after coupling, soon display divergent headsets. Peter thinks he’s been bitten by a bedbug; Agnes by the lovebug.
Reality continues to fragment. Peter is absorbed in microscopic analysis of imaginary aphids in his very real blood, and destruction becomes inevitable. R.C is ultimately rejected by Agnes when she tries to counter the madness. Enter the last character- is he real or really a spinoff of the palpable hysteria? Arney is the mysterious Dr. Sweet; is he a Dr. Mengele type from Peter’s alleged Gulf military past? He tries in vain to take Peter into his “custody”. At this point, Coon delivers a lengthy monologue embracing and extending Peter’s unlikely reality that is of such ferocity it preempts any further possible escape.
BUG is an astonishing depiction of the effects of loneliness, drugs, and obsession. Since the play was first penned and produced in 1996, as well as made into a 2007 film by William Friedkin that achieved cult status, the world has radically changed. With the plethora of intrusive communication devices, antisocial “social” apps, self-chosen media strategies and the proliferation of programable warfare/spying techniques, people have become more suspicious, privacy rights and privacy expectations have been usurped and voluntarily suspended.
Conspiracy theories have become the stuff of casual collective acceptance. It’s no surprise that the prescient and ultra-perceptive Letts’ play has spawned analyses of whether or not Peter really did have bug eggs implanted under his skin by Government agents. And Cromer works these questions into the audience thought process as he ensnares our united attention. But one needn’t speculate whether or not Peter could be correct that some U.S. military/pharmaceutical agency has actually tampered with his biology to explain his bizarre mental state.
The drugs and alcohol that Agnes and Peter endlessly smoke, snort and swallow will swiftly and certainly alter their brain chemistry and produce the fixed idea that bugs are crawling and infesting The Self. Crack cocaine alone is capable of engendering extreme suspiciousness, agitation, auditory/visual delusions, suicide and violence. In fact, the false sensation of bugs crawling on or within the skin is a sensory hallucination commonly associated with psychostimulant drugs, the phenomenon known as drug-induced formication, referred to as “coke bugs”, or “amphetamites”.
However, the amazing transformation of the physical properties of the set, the entrancing persuasive abilities of the cast- in particular the conviction of Smallwood- combine to sustain viewers belief whether or not miniscule aphids are or are not the elephant in the motel room. What’s even more remarkable is we can actually see and comprehend how Agnes’ need for the chemical reaction we call romantic love allows her to accept and embody Peter’s horrors. Letts, Cromer, cast and production crew bring us on an intense, exciting, relentless carnival ride straight into the fun house mirrors.
For information and tickets to all the great presentations at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, go to www.steppenwolf.org
All photos by Michael Brosilow