Steppenwolf’s Bug: Can we talk about this?

*Another take on a brilliant show*

She was sitting in the row in front of me. I noticed she was a talker, but nothing out of the ordinary. She’d come to the show with a couple of friends and they were having a good time. She had to have some idea what she was getting into, I mean the play’s called Bug and it’s set in a seedy Oklahoma motel room, so it made sense when she was getting a little uncomfortable in the first act. I didn’t pay much attention, though. I had my own growing sense of discomfort to deal with.

***

Tracey Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and esteemed Steppenwolf alum, is crazy good at building tension. Just when you’re feeling ok about a character, Letts has her do something unnerving like grab a lighter and freebase cocaine, and you think ‘that’s probably not going to help things’. Still, through most of the first act, it seemed like Agnes, played by Steppenwolf ensemble Carrie Coon, might end up alright. 

The play opens with Agnes nesting in her motel room, straightening up, keeping it clean, and giving off an ‘I’ve got it mostly together’ vibe, but it’s early and there are some ominous signs. The phone keeps ringing and no one’s there, and then Agnes’s abusive ex-husband is back, and her friend shows up with a semi-mysterious stranger. But he seems ok, maybe a little misunderstood, and Agnes likes him so we like him. And they connect.  

Still, something’s wrong, and we’re all getting a little more uncomfortable, and the woman in front of me is starting to squirm a little because the mysterious stranger gets bit by some kind of insect in the middle of the night… and he doesn’t take it well.  

And then, at the end of the first act, Agnes finds a bug in his hair… 

***

Bug had one week left in its Steppenwolf run when Covid shut Chicago theater down in March 2020. Twenty months later, Steppenwolf has revived Tracey Lett’s disturbingly brilliant 1996 follow-up to his breakthrough debut Killer Joe. The 2021 revival, once again directed by David Cromer, features extraordinary performances by Steppenwolf ensemble members Randall Arney, Carrie Coon, and Namir Smallwood, with Jennifer Engstrom and Steve Key.

With Letts’s lean, sharp script and straight-to-the-point dialogue–he doesn’t believe in monologues–Bug skitters then flies forward, buzzing with anxiety, loneliness, grief, addiction, and a growing sense of paranoia. Lots and lots of paranoia.    

Coon plays Agnes, a waitress and recently divorced domestic abuse survivor who seems like she’s getting her life together despite the drinking, drugs, and Goss (Key), her ex-husband who has just gotten out of prison. But it all starts to unravel with the arrival of Peter (Smallwood), a homeless veteran with a knack for noticing things.     

Agnes and Peter find short-lived–very very short-lived–comfort in each other. He thinks she’s beautiful and he likes that she’s ok with him sleeping on her floor. She needs someone to need her, and he most certainly needs her. They take their clothes off, the lights go down, and when the lights come back up their clothes are still off, and the bugs begin to breed.  

Thus begins the pattern. The lights go down and when they come back up, Agnes and Peter’s problems–and/or bugs–have exponentially multiplied. Then just when it looks like we might be getting a little closer to resolving (or at least understanding) some of the issues, the lights go down again, and when they come back up… 

Each time it happens, we all squirm a little more, and the woman in the row in front of me looks at her friends like maybe things are not going to be ok.  

Some of the credit for our discomfort should go to Takeshi Kata, whose Oklahoma motel room set starts small and simple, clean and even a little cozy. But every time the lights come back up, it looks a little more like a paranoid, insect-killer, version of Dante’s Inferno.

Under Cromer’s skillful direction, Agnes and Peter descend into an ever-growing delusional state of constant anxiety, slipping into chaos. Here Smallwood, Engstrom, and Key shine. They enter Agnes’s world, hovering and intruding, always a little too close, building the sense of unease. It’s this sense–the feeling we get watching Coon as she delivers her take on the transformation from possibility to paranoia, Agnes’s metamorphosis–that shocks and lingers.

When Tracey Letts wrote Bug in 1996, the world was by no means a simple place. Letts had recently gotten sober and had some success. Even though things weren’t perfect, they were getting better. Still, his strange and disturbing play struck a chord and became a cult classic. But there’s no way he could have known that it would go on to become the perfect play for our 2021 post-pandemic moment.

When Bug opened at Steppenwolf in 2020, it was timely. Today–with our even more amped up, terrified, deeply divided, social media programmed, fentanyl addicted, conspiracy theory culture–it’s essential.   

***

As Agnes and Peter began to slide, then fall, then downright plummet into insanity, the woman in front of me sat up straight as a board, her hand clutching her friend’s shoulder. And when the play crashed to its brilliant explosive end, she cried out… “What the fuck was that?! Can we talk about this?!” 

Before you judge, just know that’s exactly what I was thinking.           

Bug by Tracey Letts runs through December 12 at Steppenwolf. You can get your tickets at steppenwolf.org

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