Chicago Reviews

Tracy Letts’ “Bug” gets an absolutely perfect production at Steppenwolf

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Maybe it is human nature to wish to make logical sense out of random, disconnected facts or events. The ancient Greeks saw pictures in the arrangement of stars. We all see them in clouds, and the propensity to see “faces” in everything (including toast) is well documented. We have an inherent need for order, for connection, for logic, and when none of these exist we find ourselves confused. Many times, though, this need manifests in patently ridiculous notions. How many sports fans have wondered whether they somehow impacted the outcome of a game by tuning in that day or by failing to wear their lucky outfit? It is from this same illogical rationalization that conspiracy theories arise. Who really shot JFK? FDR knew in advance about Pearl Harbor and let it happen. Bush’s government was responsible for 9/11. There is a “Deep State” that is actually running everything. Facebook and Alexa are spying on us.

Wait: that last one is true. And that, more than anything else, explains the predominance of conspiracy theories in our culture. When some are actually true, the others seem just that little bit more possible. And that is what lies at the core of Tracy Letts’ Bug, finally playing on the stage at his home Steppenwolf Theatre after a quarter of a century of being performed in tiny storefronts. Essentially a two-hander, though there are three additional actors who play small, pivotal roles, Bug is the story of a lonely waitress who meets an odd, interesting, and attractive itinerant man and finds herself falling for him…and falling under his spell. It is, as Letts says, a love story, but also a folie a deux, a tale in which one person’s psychosis pretty much infects another: an actual thing that sounds almost as crazy as a conspiracy theory itself.

The waitress, Agnes, is played in this production by Carrie Coon, while the man, Tony, is portrayed by Namir Smallwood, and both performances are raw, powerful, and stunning. Coon’s evocation of loneliness, desperation, and increasing paranoia is matched stride for stride by Smallwood’s slow build of this man from quietly funny and helpful to clearly insane. Both characters are isolated; Tony, who claims to have been experimented on by the army, appears to have no friends or family and easily latches onto Agnes, who drowns her own unhappiness in a constant barrage of booze and cocaine. (Tony’s paranoia leads him to smoke it rather than snort it; the heat, he says, kills the nasty stuff that “they” have put into it.) These two have a strong physical connection almost from the beginning (and you should be aware that there is a prolonged scene in which both of them are naked). 

It isn’t until they start feeling oddly comfortable with each other that the bugs start appearing. After that, they multiply rapidly until they have apparently infested the entire motel room in which Agnes lives. The fact that the couple are the only people who actually see them—along with the fact that Tony insists that the blood-sucking insects are aphids, of all things—allows us to become aware that the bugs, like the intricate conspiracy theories that Tony weaves, are a figment of his schizophrenic delusion. Once Agnes has bought into it fully—that folie a deux—the downward spiral is fast and furious and their connection—the only two people who know what is actually going on—is sealed as they slide further and further down the rabbit hole.

Randall Arney, Jennifer Engstrom, and Steve Key have smaller roles that basically exist to challenge that delusion. Key plays Agnes’s bully of an ex-husband who casually violates a restraining order and, the second he is released from jail, seeks her out. Engstrom plays a lesbian woman who is part of a couple that seems to make up Agnes’s entire social life before Tony arrives on the scene. And Arney plays a doctor who has tracked Tony down in order to get him some help…or else maybe he is a government agent determined to bring him back into the fold for more clandestine testing and experimentation. With the level of crazy that we witness here, it seems that either version might be possible, and that is Letts’ greatest trick: even the audience isn’t always sure what is real and what is not.

The always-great David Cromer, whose plays are never anything less than fascinating, gets everything he possibly can from these actors and, I might add, from the tech crew, who have one of the most complicated and intricate intermission changes I’ve ever seen as they embellish and dress what was already a busy set. The cheap motel room, rendered to perfection by Takeshi Kata, is hyper-realistic right down to the water stains on the ceiling and is carefully lit by Heather Gilbert, who knows how to keep things half in shadow when she wants to. And Josh Schmidt’s sound design passes from realistic to hyper-creepy as the infestation takes hold of us as well. (I actually started getting itchy at one point.)

Ultimately, the fact that we almost slip with Agnes and Tony into this delusion is part of the game. We live today in a world that has run amok with conspiracy theories of every kind. They are omnipresent on social media and the web. The president buys into several of them, spouting them at his rallies. No wonder it is so difficult to tell the truth from the lies for so many people these days. Bug was written in the 1990s, but its relevance has (sadly) only grown as it ages. Letts may say it is a love story, but it is a highly singular one in which, he makes clear, it is always possible to find just the right person to fit perfectly into whatever your life might be. Even in a world of dark conspiracies, there is something comforting about that.

Bug is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, until Mar 15. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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