Bug Brilliantly Burrows Into a Heart of Conspiratorial Darkness

The first example of intrusive sound in Bug opens when the play does: A telephone rings inside a squalid motel room in Oklahoma, but there’s nobody on the line. There’s never anybody on the line. Sometime later, a persistent cheep resounds across the room — a smoke alarm that seems to have selected this specific time to run low on battery, just to drive the tenants up the wall. It’s not long until we hear the blades of a helicopter patrolling the air above, and we don’t need to see it to assume it’s painted a conspiratorial black.

It’s enough to drive anybody insane, if they weren’t there already, and this bold Tracy Letts play never tells us what to believe, leaving the audience to decide whether the increasingly paranoid actions of the room’s doomed companions are the result of psychotic and/or psychosomatic breakdowns or a nefarious, M.K. Ultra-style deep-government experiment. This sensational coproduction between Wilton Manors’ Infinite Abyss and Boca Raton’s Evening Star Productions offers one of the most visceral, most alive theatrical experiences of the year. It’s a show that, like the probably imagined but plausibly real insects of the title, will get under your skin and stay there.

It’s a show that will get under your skin and stay there.

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Erynn Dalton, Infinite Abyss’ longtime artistic director, plays Agnes, a honky-tonk waitress with an empty future and a tragic past that includes an abusive ex-husband newly out of prison (Dominick Daniel, swerving like a pendulum between frightening and blackly comic) and a long-missing son. R.C. (Rachel Finley), Agnes’ lesbian biker friend, brings home an unusual man she picked up at a bar: Peter Evans (Todd Bruno), a withdrawn, socially awkward loner who is, in his own words, “sort of between addresses right now.”

Agnes welcomes him into her hovel more out of pity than affection, though by the next night, they share a bed and a few bodily fluids, and by the following morning, the trouble has really begun: That’s when the first bug, an infinitesimal aphid, appears in the bed sheets, or so Peter believes. He has the bites and scars to prove it, and though Agnes can’t really see the crawling invertebrates, she eventually falls victim to Peter’s debilitating paranoia, which eventually spirals into an all-encompassing conspiracy involving the Bilderberg group, Jim Jones, the Tuskegee experiment, the Oklahoma City bombing, and more.

Bug is a disturbing play, but its horror builds slowly, and it takes a while to find its groove. At first, not all of the actors seem to fully own Letts’ dialogue, with its pungent regional flavor (“that egg-suckin’ son of a bitch”). But by the time the madness settles in, the result is more than worth the wait. Director Rosalie Grant, stepping far away from her day job at Sol Children’s Theatre, delivers her finest adult work yet, unafraid to push her actors toward any number of brinks, from onstage nudity to physical confrontations that look bracingly real (fight choreographer Seth Trucks handled the stage combat, and his contribution is vital). The set design, by Keith Grant, Jim Gibbons, and Lisa Earhart, is perfectly nasty — the motel room’s walls appear to be bleeding, and the abstract art that hangs on them resembles gaping voids.

The acting, aside from those few authenticity hiccups early on, is excellent. Gibbons, who appears late in the play as a shadowy doctor, brings the perfect amount of nuance to his character, playing him as either a placid rationalist fulfilling his Hippocratic oath or a cunning emissary from the illuminati. Dalton’s elliptical transformation from a grounded if bedraggled and drug-dependent woman of sound mind and body into a damaged recluse petrified by every knock on the door is astonishing. And Bruno’s Peter is the show’s unforgettable center. He adds a distinctive lisp to his character’s ravings, and his harrowing performance is perched perpetually on the edge. It’s so immersively in-the-moment that whenever the Abyss Stage’s exceedingly loud air conditioner fires up and powers down, he reacts to it, like it’s just another sound cue, with a frightened glance — exactly the way a paranoiac would.

Bug is a play of perhaps too much depth to fully absorb in one viewing — especially the mesmerizing the second act — but it can probably be read as an allegory about sexually transmitted disease or as a paean to the so-called Morgellons disease (if you want a good scare, Google it). But what stands out most in this production is its melancholy sense of self-imposed exile. At some point, the set becomes less a motel room than a cocoon, constructed from the characters’ (invented or engineered) madness. They’re nothing more than bugs in reverse, disappearing into a pupa.

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John Thomason
Contact: John Thomason