Theater Review: BUG (Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 6, 2020

in Theater-Chicago

BUG GETS UNDER YOUR SKIN

Nineteen years ago, A Red Orchid Theatre launched the Midwest premiere of Bug by Pulitzer-winner Tracy Letts. It unleashed a ferocious Michael Shannon and a self-destructing Kate Buddeke in the title roles. Back then I thought the play just an excuse for excess — the shock effects of wacko lovers dissolving into dysfunction and pulverized by paranoia.

Now, at Steppenwolf Theatre, these two traumatic hours are back with a vengeance — and with a difference.

It’s not as if Letts couldn’t have made us care in 2001. The author of Superior Donuts, Linda Vista, The Minutes and August: Osage County depicts Agnes, a 40-year-old cocktail waitress stuck permanently in a seedy motel near Oklahoma City. Agnes lost her son in a grocery store six years before — and has lost herself since. When she’s not nursing loneliness with booze, drugs and a lesbian friend from the tavern, Agnes dreads the return of Jerry, her abusive ex. He’s a Jesus-loving ex-con, a thug who wants to slap her around one more time.

Agnes is ripe to meet a mysterious stranger. But Peter Evans, a young drifter with a sick soul who may have gone AWOL, is beyond mysterious. As he initially says with disarming mildness, “I pick up on things” — like the Oklahoma City bombing, extraterrestrials, suicidal fringe groups, and the endless war in the Mideast. Hell, they don’t even have to actually be there. Reality is too confining a concept.

In no time corrosive Peter infects Agnes with his paranoia about parasitical, mind-controlling aphids that were injected into his blood during the Gulf War. Though he forgets to lock the motel room door, he covers the walls with aluminum foil to, well, foil evil transmissions. (Incredible and instant, it’s a stunning scene change in Takeshi Kata’s scary set design.) Eager to please, co-dependent Agnes imagines Peter’s biological microchips crawling inside her. How to exterminate these nano-insects? How do we rid ourselves of egg sacks that must be cut out?

There’s nothing like a good immolation.

That was then: Dexter Bullard’s excruciatingly naturalistic staging coasted on the conviction of Shannon bringing his usual creepy, bug-eyed intensity and deadpan drone to persecuted Peter. Buddeke’s whisky voice came from the bottom of a bottle and fused with her sad-sack posture and plaintive pathos to create a self-mutilating Agnes far more plaintive and dignified than this play ever imagined. I thought that Bug might have stumbled on substance had it explored Agnes’s neediness or Peter’s past. But this study in escalating hysteria seemed a one-note metaphor for nothing.

This is now: Two decades later, David Cromer reprises Bug’s desperation with a single-minded obsessiveness that replaces lurid exploitation with escalating excitement. It goes beyond the now-familiar currency of conspiracy thinking to detonate a twisted love story of doomed dependence and, as the playwright puts it, “a folie a deux.” Far from mutually exclusive, love and insanity are opposites that attract and destroy. A cult can be a couple.

It helps that, rather than daring us to deny his dementia, Namir Smallwood’s Peter, much more subdued than Shannon, slowly seduces the audience into his all-purpose fabrications. We’re every bit as “taken” as Carrie Coon’s drifting and lonely Agnes, a profile in willing victimhood. We can get behind Peter’s obsessions and Agnes’s isolation; his conspiracy-mongering and her sexual hunger are no longer easy sensationalism.

As the jerk Jerry, Steven Key is your usual wife-beating redneck monster. Jennifer Engstrom exudes spunky loyalty as Agnes’s hapless biker champion. Randall Arney has the thankless role of an Army doctor whose intervention goes disastrously wrong.

Maybe because America has now endured two decades of social media “bubbles” where delusions of disinformation and fear-mongering hate find shelters in the storm. This metastasizing of mistrust and solidification of suspicion threaten our collective sanity. Just by happening now, this second coming of Bug profits from a climate of crises.

But it also helps that Cromer’s cast finds the truth about terror in every one of Letts’s fierce falsities. More to our sorrow than satisfaction, Bug has aged terribly well.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Bug
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted Street
ends on March 8, 2020
EXTENDED to March 15, 2020
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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