If one intends to hole up in a seedy Oklahoma City motel room to hide from one's violent ex-husband, I suppose high style dictates ordering up a few items to round out the tableau: a supply of crack, copious amounts of liquor, and a delusional Gulf War vet will do for a start. At least this is the route Agnes (Jodi A. Kellogg) opts for in Tracy Letts's bleak psychological car crash of a drama, Bug, staged here by Pillsbury House Theatre.
Peter (John Catron), the aforementioned vet, shows up in Agnes's room as a friend-of-a-friend; soon enough Agnes offers him a place to sleep on her floor, and then her bed. At this point we're rooting for her: Kellogg, in a strong performance, endows Agnes with a broad Okie drawl, and with eyes set wide in mercury flashes of defiance and submission.
Catron, for his part, delivers little in the early going. His character unspools cryptic half-thoughts in between enthusiastic hits on the crack pipe. It's easy to imagine a performer going over the top by offering up Peter as a drooling madman from the start. Yet Catron's laconic delivery doesn't set up Agnes's reactions—even as he goes on to hard-sell Peter's elaborate delusions.
Catron fares better in scenes with ex-hubby Jerry (Chris Carlson), who blows through periodically like a nasty thunderstorm and injects a fearful edge with his very presence. Carlson, a big guy, glowers with malice, and captures the general spirit of a guy who punches a woman in the mouth and then demands she take the blame for it. More surprising is Carlson's high, forced laugh, in moments when his character takes a momentary stab at behaving like a reasonable human being.
The second half of the drama narrows the psychological range, boring into these drunken down-and-outs and finding full-blown paranoiacs. Director Stephen DiMenna ratchets up the intensity accordingly. Peter starts spotting bugs in the bed (where he and Agnes spend a good deal of time, often naked, yet not doing the more diverting things one can do on a bed). Then Peter sees bugs on his body, in his blood, and in a tooth—which discovery inspires a feat of dreadful self-dentistry. Agnes, in no great shape herself, convinces herself she sees them, too.
Playwright Letts obviously knows his conspiracy lore, and Peter lays out a scenario beginning with Nazi scientists in post-World War II America, moving on to the Bilderbergers, and making pit stops in Area 51 and the dark halls of mind-control labs. Kellogg tries to show Agnes going along with this stuff; she's confounded, true, but she's also accustomed to agreeing to all kinds of weird shit from the men in her life. Yet the conversion seems contrived. The primary culprit for this disconnect is Catron, whose woefully uninflected tales of being turned into a government guinea pig leave you wondering if Peter himself believes what he's saying.
Events come to a head with the appearance of Peter's shrink Dr. Sweet (Stephen Yoakam), who arrives to find the motel room decked out in tinfoil decor and perfumed by the unique aroma of unwashed psychotic fixation. The place is filled with as much bug spray as booze by this point, and the doctor blithely avails himself of some of the vices at hand. Yoakam brings to mind his performance in 2004's Blue/Orange at the Guthrie Lab, when he played a twisted psychiatrist with an R.D. Laing-like willingness to play around with the definition of sanity. Here, Dr. Sweet seems to allow a similar flexibility to be his downfall, entering into Agnes and Peter's delusion and earning himself a grisly fate.
That is, unless I completely misread the play, in which case the forces of global conspiracy are waiting outside that vulnerable little motel door. But I choose to think not. I'm sure there are big, scary stories out there that stagger the imagination, but more often than not a bender in a motel is little more than the sordid sum of its parts. Unfortunately, by this production's final conflagration all I could think of was how the show had failed to provide enough dramatic fuel to properly burn down the house.