Oh, how deceiving first appearances can be. At the start of Tracy Lett's Bug, now in its Florida premiere at GableStage, a leggy redhead stands in the doorway of a battered motel room, sipping some wine and swaying gently to lively Colombian music playing somewhere off in the night. It's a gentle, brief introduction to Agnes White, a world-weary cocktail waitress in Oklahoma City with a history of grief and a penchant for hard drugs. But that sip of wine is the only moment of peace Agnes gets in this wild story. Soon, she meets Peter Evans, a tightly wound Gulf War veteran who needs a place to crash for the night. Peter's nice enough at first -- polite, articulate, kind -- quite a difference from Agnes' thuggish ex-con of a husband, Jerry. He's also as lonely as Agnes, and, though neither has any romantic intentions, a tentative, offbeat sort of love begins to bloom. But then Peter reveals that he is a hunted man, AWOL from secret government experiments that have left him with mind-controlling insect larvae implanted under his skin. Peter's claims set Agnes reeling -- at times, he seems delusional; at times, completely honest. With even the simplest truths suddenly in doubt, Agnes' hard-luck world morphs into a nightmare of paranoia and secret government plots.
Johnston (left), Durkin, Azurdia: The play whipsaws from suspense to tenderness to violence.
Letts is a Chicago actor/playwright, a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, who also penned Killer Joe, another slam-bang, blue-collar melodrama that enjoyed a popular run at GableStage some seasons back. Both plays echo those of Sam Shepard, another actor/writer whose dark, brooding dramas focus on marginal middle-American lives and the desperation and violence that bubbles up from long-buried secrets. Bug doesn't achieve the kind of scope or altitude of Shepard's work -- it lacks his mythic resonances -- but it still speaks to some basic American themes. Written in the mid-1990s, Bug is set in Oklahoma City, site of the then worst terrorist attack in American history. That era, which was also marked by the Waco shootout and right-wing militia activity, was filled with working-class paranoia about covert government plots. The political landscape has changed with the ascendancy of George W. Bush, but the theme of paranoia and government plotting now finds expression on the political left, which may explain Bug's sudden and continued popularity off-Broadway, where it is still running strongly. Certainly many angry, frustrated liberals are convinced that both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were rigged, and more than a few have expressed the suspicion that the federal government is actively engaged in several secret plots against the citizenry.
Bug offers some expression of such sentiments, but the play's politics don't really go anywhere -- the paranoia plot line self-destructs in the end. What's perhaps more engaging -- and more substantive -- is Agnes' story about how loneliness can be a powerful motivational force. Agnes is driven by the random tragedy of her past -- her 6-year-old son vanished from her shopping cart one day ten years ago. "I only went to get an onion," she explains to Peter; when she returned to her cart, her son was gone. Agnes' unexpressed sorrow finds comfort in Peter's complex, onion-like theories, which reveal layer upon layer of conspiracy, and she eagerly embraces them.
As he did with Killer Joe several seasons back, director Joseph Adler stirs up a highly charged thriller, featuring a snappy pace that whipsaws from suspense to tenderness to violence. The hyperrealistic production includes extensive, sometimes gratuitous nudity, casual trips to the toilet (in full audience view) and moments of grotesque violence, but it also manages to be a loopy, poignant love story. The result is disturbing and creepy but thoroughly engaging, a thriller filled with menace and melodrama that's almost Jacobean in its over-the-top theatricality. Kathryn Lee Johnston is completely believable as Agnes, the salt-of-the-earth heroine whose sorrows all stem from her male relationships -- husband, son, and lover all bring her nothing but deep grief. Todd Allen Durkin does well as Peter, moving credibly from awkward geek to raging paranoid. Both these roles are formidable -- either Agnes or Peter are in full cry for the entire action-packed show. Both actors respond with fierce intensity, even if they don't quite find all of the characters' emotional beats -- their mutual attraction, for example, seems more convenience than moment-to-moment discovery. David Caprita, who played the title role in the GableStage Killer Joe,turns on the glowering, bad-guy vibes as Agnes' menacing ex, while Ivonne Azurdia offers excellent, low-key support as Agnes' lesbian pal. The chameleon-like Gregg Weiner, who has appeared in a remarkably wide range of roles on area stages, pops up here in a brief, effective appearance as a nerdy psychiatrist.