Bug starts out like a Sam Shepard play. Two lost souls in a seedy Oklahoma motel room. Fools for love. Agnes (Carrie Coon) is a waitress who’s dreading her ex-husband’s release from prison. She meets a drifter named Peter (Namir Smallwood), a man with a calm intensity and an impressive vocabulary. They get acquainted (while drinking and smoking crack cocaine) and soon fall into bed. David Cromer directs this bizarrely fascinating dive into loneliness and paranoia.
Tracy Letts’ 1996 play doesn’t remain simply a love story for long, however. Soon Peter tears the bed apart, searching for bugs. (Insects, not illicit recording devices.) Agnes might have caught a hint earlier, when he rips her smoke alarm off the wall (after it beeps its need for a new battery) and throws it out. It’s dangerous, more radioactive than plutonium, he tells her.
And he finds bugs. Aphids, he says. Like plant lice. They burrow under your skin and grow egg sacs. The bug threats increase. By act two, Peter is sitting on the floor with a child’s chemistry set, pricking his finger to inspect his blood under a microscope. Insecticide is everywhere, in many forms. Fly strips hang from the ceiling. Roach motels are strewn around the room.
Agnes’ friend R.C. (a rowdy Jennifer Engstrom), who introduced Agnes to Peter after meeting him in a bar, tries to rescue her friend. Ex-husband Jerry (Steve Key), now out of prison, thinks he’s coming back to be with Agnes but changes his mind. Helicopters buzzing overhead become more and more ominous. The bug infestation, with electronic additives, increases and the battle continues.
In a way, Bug is a vestige of the Clinton era, when we first suspected the government of spying on us. But Peter reminds Agnes that the government has a long history of assaults on our physical wellbeing, including cases like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer resulted in the immortal HeLa cells. But given the policies of the government today, it would be unwise to think it was above such behavior. Are those egg sacs under your skin or microchips to control your behavior?
Cromer’s smart direction brings out superb performances from the two leading actors. Coon (who we know from Steppenwolf’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, FX’s “Fargo” and HBO’s “The Leftovers”) is agonizingly sad as the women who has lost a son and yearns for connection. She achieves the Oklahoma accent in Letts’ dialog (text and dialect coaching by Gigi Buffington). Smallwood (True West and BLKS) is mesmerizing as a man with the pure conviction that his body has been taken over. Engstrom and Key are perfectly cast in this quartet of veteran Chicago actors. Randall Arney also has a brief and terrifying scene as a doctor.
The increasingly lurid set design is by Takashi Kata with special effects by Rylee Nicole. Lighting design is by Heather Gilbert and sound by Josh Schmidt. Sarah Laux gets credit for costume design.
I first saw Bug in 2004 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, where it ran for 11 months. Michael Shannon played Peter and Shannon Cochran was Agnes. Dexter Bullard directed. It wasn’t my first Tracy Letts play—I had seen Killer Joe by then—but Bug cemented my affection for Letts’ inventive characters and plotting. Then he became serious with August Osage County (also set in his native Oklahoma) and Mary Page Marlowe. My belief in his madness was renewed, however, in act two of The Minutes, which opens on Broadway this month.
Bug continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., through March 15. Tickets are $20-$125 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is two hours including one intermission. Watch this interview with ] Letts and learn how he came to write Bug.