Is it too soon to choose a favorite show of 2020? Though it’s only February, Steppenwolf’s production of Tracy Letts’ Bug has already claimed one of the top spots. Letts’ spine-tingling, nuanced work, which had critically acclaimed runs throughout the early 2000s and a film adaptation in 2006, is hauntingly memorable in its triumphant return to the Chicago stage. Like the aphids infesting the play’s main characters, Bug will get under your skin and stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Letts originally wrote the play for smaller venues--Steppenwolf is the largest to produce it in the play’s 20 plus year history--but the intensity and rawness is far from lost here. Rarely have I been at a performance where audiences had such visceral, and audible, reactions to the happenings onstage.
At the play’s beginning, though, there was silence save for the onstage insistent ringing of a phone, the clang of an air conditioner turning off. A sense of emptiness pervades Bug’s sole setting, a dreary Oklahoma motel room, and serves as a fitting introduction to its full-time occupant Agnes (Carrie Coon). Like her bare-bones, adopted home, Agnes reeks of desolation. When her friend R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom) introduces her to Peter (Namir Smallwood), a transient who seems equally isolated, Agnes jumps at the chance to make a connection and invites Peter to stay with her. What follows is, as Letts describes it, “a love story,” but a dark one that exposes our deep desire to make sense of life and to not go through it alone. As Agnes says, “I guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothin’ with nobody.”
This line exemplifies a strength of Letts’ works overall, the ability to balance comic and tragic while building toward a climactic and seemingly inevitable conclusion. At Steppenwolf, the cast takes on this challenge with aplomb under the artful direction of David Cromer. Coon is absolutely captivating as Agnes. Her layered performance exposes Agnes’ grief and desperation in every movement and line--Coon simply embodies this character. Smallwood, in turn, brings incredible depth to Peter, a challenging character whose humanity must be understood for the play to work. Together, the two create an electric chemistry that transcends the boundaries of the stage.
Equally noteworthy are the show’s technical elements, which meld perfectly together to reinforce the characters’ evolution throughout the play. During opening night, a flawless scene change that required perfect cohesion in set, lighting, and sound, (scenic design by Takeshi Kata; lighting design by Heather Gilbert; sound design by Josh Schmidt) engendered spontaneous applause in the 500 seat theatre.
Bug may not be a new work, but it’s reborn in 2020. In an interview, Letts mentions that he initially wrote the play in response to the paranoia following the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Since then, we’ve survived and witnessed countless terrorist attacks and climate disasters around the globe, with only pessimistic scientific predictions on the horizon. Letts’ exploration of paranoia, of how ideas fester and grow under the lens of collective pain, feels ever-more relevant now. Something insidious sinks in during Bug, burrowing deep into your psyche. The production isn’t just representative of the best of Steppenwolf, but the best of theatre itself: a terrifying masterpiece featuring some of the most talented artists of our time. Run, don’t crawl, to Steppenwolf Theatre. (Emily Schmidt)
Highly Recommended ★★★★
Bug has extended through March 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre. More info here.
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