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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER Bug
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2020-02-09

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At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org; $20-$125. Runs through: March 15

There are so many reasons why Steppenwolf Theatre Company's revival of Bug is the major event of the Chicago theater season—or any other season for that matter. It bursts at the seams with star power, civic pride and damn terrifying theatricality.

For celebrity buzz, Bug features Steppenwolf ensemble member and TV star Carrie Coon ( HBO's The Leftovers, FX's Fargo ). There's also the frisson of watching Coon performing an early work by her Tony Award-winning playwright/actor husband ( and fellow Chicago-based ensemble member ), Tracy Letts.

Bug also has historical Windy City ties. Letts' 1996 drama originally starred Chicago actor and future Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon as the paranoid army veteran Peter Evans, a role he preserved in William Friedkin's 2006 film version.

Bug's artistic bona fides continue with Tony Award-winning director ( and former Chicagoan ) David Cromer at the helm of Steppenwolf's revival. Cromer leads a dynamic acting ensemble and pitch-perfect production design team that all creep the living daylights out of an audience.

Bug focuses on the lonely and drug-addled Oklahoma waitress Agnes White ( Coon ). She lives on the edges in a bleak motel room, and is upset about early parole being granted to her abusive ex-husband, Jerry Goss ( Steve Key ).

Agnes also surrounds herself with partying friends like the lesbian biker R.C. ( Jennifer Engstrom ). R.C. introduces Agnes to Peter ( Namir Smallwood ), who is between jobs and asks for a place to stay.

Agnes and Peter bond over their tragic pasts, and take in copious amounts of drugs and booze. Peter becomes obsessed with the motel room being infested with bugs, which grows to disturbing conspiracy-theory levels. The arrival of Dr. Sweet ( Randall Arney ) offers the hope for some sanity ( or not ).

Cromer's production benefits from amazing production design elements. From the unexpected transformation of Agnes' dreary motel room ( kudos to set designer Takeshi Kata and lighting designer Heather Gilbert ) to the small and unnerving clatter of the air conditioner unit ( amazing work by sound designer Josh Schmidt ), Steppenwolf's Bug is truly supersized and intimate at the same time.

Cromer and his fine cast also go the distance with this extreme material, which features lots of nudity and upsetting blood-letting. Everyone is unflinchingly believable with their bleak performances, especially when the plot hurls toward a conclusion that is both operatic and comically banal with its tragic finality.

With Bug, Lett's is implying that love, desire and belief can be as contagions as any vermin infestation or deadly virus. And Bug is also horrifyingly topical, especially with so many conspiracy theories and untruths shared locally and globally on social media. Steppenwolf's Bug will truly haunt you.


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