Bug still gets under the skin | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Bug still gets under the skin

David Cromer's production for Steppenwolf taps into our current conspiracy-theory culture.

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UPDATE Thursday, March 12: this event has been canceled. Refunds available at point of purchase.


The lobby of Steppenwolf Theatre should have been filled with the pings and dings of Iowa caucus results as audience members exited the theater Monday night. The opening performance of Steppenwolf's premiere of Tracy Letts's Bug, directed by David Cromer, coincided with the very beginning of the Democratic primary season, after all. (The play premiered in London in 1996, starring Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon, and made its local debut at A Red Orchid Theatre in 2001, starring Kate Buddeke and Shannon.)

But there were no results, only disputed claims of election hacks and digital interference.

Coincidence? Bug's Peter Evans (Steppenwolf ensemble member Namir Smallwood) would think not.

It's hard to believe in coincidences when you're living in a widespread, government-backed conspiracy theory. When Peter meets Agnes (Steppenwolf ensemble member Carrie Coon) at the seamy motel she calls home on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, he's an obvious drifter with a mysterious past. After being introduced to Agnes by R.C. (Jennifer Engstrom), Peter ends up ditching a party to spend time with Agnes instead.

They hang out, smoke crack, drink vodka and Cokes, and—"Did you hear that?"—go hunting for a cricket that turns out to be not a cricket at all, but rather Agnes's dying smoke detector. After Peter sends the device careening off the wall of scenic designer Takeshi Kata's perfect set, he encourages her to get rid of the thing immediately.

"Why?" Agnes asks.

"They're dangerous. They've got americium-241 in them. More radioactive than plutonium," Peter says.

"Holy shit. No wonder I feel so lousy," Agnes responds.

Agnes feels lousy for several reasons: Her ex-husband is out of jail early, and his reentry into her life floats above her head with impending doom; she smokes a lot of crack and she drinks a lot, too. She hasn't seen her son since he vanished from her shopping cart at a grocery store almost ten years ago, a painful truth she shares with Peter shortly after they bond over the dangers of that americium in the smoke detector.

Once Agnes invites Peter to sleep on the floor of her hotel room, the two become inseparable, their blossoming friendship stoked into a love story by the flames of Peter's emergent paranoia, and Agnes's willingness to believe or smoke anything that makes her feel alive.

Peter's paranoia exhibits as a multilayered theory about the millions of militarized bugs he believes his body fell prey to after a state-sanctioned experiment on citizen surveillance went wrong. A former soldier, Peter's PTSD is palpable and raw. As originally written by Letts, Agnes is 17 years Peter's senior. She takes him to bed, but their relationship isn't overtly sexual. They bond over the chips stacked against him and the ways the world has wronged them. While Agnes doesn't initially exhibit any signs of her own mental illness, she is easily caught up in Peter's panic. Her cultural contagion feels just as applicable today as it did nearly 25 years ago in a political climate where polarization works. We're all just trying to survive.  v

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