Steppenwolf's 'Bug' a welcome infestation of thrills and paranoia

  • Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood play a troubled couple who descend into psychosis in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of Tracy Letts' unsettling "Bug."

    Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood play a troubled couple who descend into psychosis in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of Tracy Letts' unsettling "Bug." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 2/7/2020 12:44 PM

"Bug" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

A combination love story, psychodrama, dark comedy and horror tale, "Bug," by Tracy Letts, is a wholly riveting account of a paranoid Gulf War veteran and the hard-up, heartbroken waitress who comes to share his obsession.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of "Bug" (also a 2006 film of the same name featuring Michael Shannon in the lead role) marks a departure for a play typically staged in small venues that suit its claustrophobic tone. But director David Cromer's superbly staged, ferociously acted production remains as immediate and intense in Steppenwolf's largest theater as it would on a storefront stage.

Credit goes to both Letts, whose writing is sharp, subtle and always authentic, and Cromer, whose direction is understated and refined. His deliberately paced production starts out languid and accelerates to keep pace with the characters' increasingly pronounced paranoia. Cromer does the same thing with the menace that underscores the play, gradually ratcheting up the tension. We sense something's coming and, when it does, it's electrifying.

R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom), center, confronts her increasingly paranoid friend Agnes (Carrie Coon), right, and her new lover Peter (Namir Smallwood) in "Bug" at Steppenwolf Theatre.
R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom), center, confronts her increasingly paranoid friend Agnes (Carrie Coon), right, and her new lover Peter (Namir Smallwood) in "Bug" at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

And in Steppenwolf ensemble members Namir Smallwood and Carrie Coon -- as a man standing on the jagged edge of sanity and the woman he convinces to join him there -- Cromer has actors capable of delivering all manner of thrills.

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A sense of desolation and dread emerges as the play opens with Agnes (an exquisitely vulnerable Coon) staring vacantly as she stands in the doorway of her cheap motel room outside Oklahoma City, thoroughly realized and shockingly transformed by set designer Takeshi Kata and lighting designer Heather Gilbert.

Steve Key, left, plays violent ex-con Jerry and Namir Smallwood plays Gulf War veteran Peter in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of "Bug" by ensemble member Tracy Letts.
Steve Key, left, plays violent ex-con Jerry and Namir Smallwood plays Gulf War veteran Peter in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of "Bug" by ensemble member Tracy Letts. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

She's hiding from Jerry (Steve Key), her abusive, ex-con ex-husband, who appears to be stalking her. Her friend R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom) arrives with the enigmatic, soft-spoken Peter (Smallwood -- raw, exposed and combustible) and an invitation to a party. Agnes and Peter decline and instead embark upon a drug- and alcohol-fueled evening that concludes with sex. But it's not sex that unites these lonely, wounded people hanging on by their fingernails. It's a shared psychosis that is rooted in Peter's belief that he's been the subject of government experimentation (the nature of which is suggested by the play's title). Gradually, that paranoia infests Agnes. By the time a Dr. Sweet (Randall Arney) arrives, the damage has been done.

Steppenwolf Theatre revives ensemble member Tracy Letts' foreboding psychological drama "Bug" about a man's paranoia infesting his lover.
Steppenwolf Theatre revives ensemble member Tracy Letts' foreboding psychological drama "Bug" about a man's paranoia infesting his lover. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"One time, maybe, a long time ago, people were safe, but that's all over. Not anymore. Not on this planet," Peter says. "We'll never really be safe again."

Even if he's not entirely credible, he's not necessarily wrong.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through March 15. Also 2 p.m. March 4. No 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 23, March 1, 8 or 15

Running time: Two hours, with intermission

Tickets: $20-$125

Parking: $15 in the lot; limited street parking

Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter, language and nudity. Not for sensitive audience members

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