Horrifying, grotesque and superb, ‘Bug’ will make your skin crawl and your emotions soar

Running through Dec. 12 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, the drama that debuted 20 years ago at Chicago’s Red Orchid Theatre now seems violently prescient.

SHARE Horrifying, grotesque and superb, ‘Bug’ will make your skin crawl and your emotions soar
Ensemble members Carrie Coon stars as Agnes White and Namir Smallwood stars as Peter Evans in Steppenwolf’s production of “Bug,”  directed by David Cromer.

Ensemble members Carrie Coon stars as Agnes White and Namir Smallwood stars as Peter Evans in Steppenwolf’s production of “Bug,” directed by David Cromer.

Michael Brosilow

Somewhere safe. A space where you know you’re protected — or at least somewhat sheltered when the world unleashes plagues or drought or rising oceans or any other of life’s endless cruelties. It’s that universal, primal craving for refuge that drives the bloody, unconventional love story at the infested heart of Tracy Letts’ drama “Bug.”

COVID-19 shut down Steppenwolf Theatre’s staging of “Bug” shortly after it opened last year. Some 20 months later, it’s back with the same uncompromising cast in place, directed again to peak intensity by Tony Award winner David Cromer.

If Letts’ had premiered “Bug” this year, I would have slammed it for being too on-the-nose in its exploration of isolation, terror and mental illness. Running through Dec. 12 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, the drama that debuted 20 years ago at Chicago’s Red Orchid Theatre now seems violently prescient.

‘Bug’

Bug review

When: Through Dec. 12

Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20 – $110

Run-time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission

Info: steppenwolf.org

“Bug” unfolds in a grimy Oklahoma motel room wherewaitress Agnes White (Carrie Coon) lives in between shifts.The place evokes the drab exhaustion of quarantine: The quarters are close. Things get cluttered and messy fast. There’s nowhere to go. The current of terror running like an electrified third rail through the plot centers on lethal, airborne mites all but invisible to the human eye — bugs whose larva will burrow under your skin and feed on your blood until you die. Maybe.

Or, maybeAgnes’ new friend/lover Peter (Namir Smallwood) is a paranoid, delusional threat to himself and others, who is AWOL from an army mental health facility. Whichever is true, there’s no question about the connection Peter and Agnes (Carrie Coon) forge.

They feed off each other, sharing cocaine and trauma and their bodies until their bond is unbreakable. She’s seen enough loss and cruelty to buy into Peter’s insistence that malevolent, all-powerful forces are trying to destroy them via transmitter-bearing aphid larvae, implanted under their skin or inside the teeth. As Peter points out,the U.S. government has a history of using unwittingAfrican Americans in medical experiments.

“Bug” works on multiple levels. It’s a psychological thriller with grotesque elements of horror chewing through its heart. It’s an unconventional love story, where, in lieu of candy and flowers, Letts offers pliers and knives, the former for a harrowing bit of dentistry, the latter for gouging aphid egg sacs from various body parts.

The grotesqueries and the nudity are plentiful but never gratuitous in Letts’ slickly-paced plot. Agnes is lonely, afraid of the dark, and continually traumatized by her ex-husband Jerry (Steve Key). Peter shows up offering gentleness and kindness. When the two meet, the sparks don’t fly but there is a nearly instant recognition between two people the world simply doesn’t value. Once their connection is forged, the bugs start crawling in. Or so Peter insists.

Smallwood has a quiet intensity that moves from tender to ruthless with absolute authenticity. Coon gives Agnes equal parts vulnerability and hardened survivor.The script calls for the subtlest and the most outsize emotions. Whether with whispers or screams, embraces or blows, Smallwood and Coon command the stage.

Set designer Takeshi Kata’s seedy motel room is a model of realism — this is the kind of place where you don’t want to think about what residue lurks in the sheets or the carpet. Katka has also crafted a remarkable set change in the final act that visually captures the nightmarish, manic power of obsessive, relentless fear.

The supporting cast enriches the entire production. As Agnes’ friend, R.C., Jennifer Engstrom is the ride or die that every person on the planet needs. She’s brash, profane, has no compunction about speaking her mind with a ferocity that implies she could also land a punch or work a shiv if the situation called for it. Key’s dim-bulb, ex-con Jerry would be pathetic if he weren’t so brutal. What Jerry can’t solve with his brain (which is most things), he’ll fix with his fists.

Finally, there’s Randall Arney as Dr. Sweet. Although he claims to be Peter’s doctor, there’s something deeply off about Dr. Sweet — especially once he starts promising to save Peter from both infestation and the circling helicopters overhead.

In the world of “Bug,” nobody is safe. There is no shelter. Anxiety and fear dominate these characters like a looming eviction deadline or an untreatable diagnosis. Two decades from its debut, “Bug” remains a parable — and a cautionary tale — for right now.

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