Tracy Letts's Bug isn't easy to watch, but when it's done well — as with Shadow Horse Theatre's new production — it's impossible to turn away.
Justin Kirkeberg directs a tense, briskly paced piece aided by actors who keep one foot in the real and one in the grotesque to provide a memorable and frightening evening.
In a dingy motel off an Oklahoma highway, we find a match made in Hell. Agnes and Peter are both perfect and awful for each other, a pair of lost souls hiding out in a motel room with an unhealthy mix of alcohol, cocaine, and increasing paranoia.[jump]
Peter, a drifter who arrives at Agnes's door one evening, reveals his troubles with every jittering motion and nervous tick. He's a Gulf War veteran who believes the government experimented on him while he was in the desert. That experimentation, he is convinced, included putting tiny mind-controlling bugs under his skin.
Agnes's troubles are more mundane. She's approaching middle age, looking back at a disaster of a life. Her abusive ex-husband has just been released from prison. She's also haunted by the disappearance of her young son more than a decade before. She's turned to drugs as a coping mechanism, smoking and snorting the pain away.
Peter's obsession over the bugs starts innocently enough. The two share an evening in bed together, but it's interrupted by what he thinks is a bug bite. He obsessively checks the bed before finding a tiny — possibly imaginary — creature. Everything spirals from there. They are convinced that an infestation is taking over the room — and their bodies.
Agnes is presented frequent chances to escape from Peter. There's her friend RC, who carries the guilt of introducing the pair. There's even ex-husband Jerry, a dangerous bully who sees how wrong things have gone in the hotel room.
Kirkeberg provides an unflinching glimpse into the decay as Katherine Preble and Aaron Henry offer frightening turns as the two leads. Henry wears his psychoses on his sleeve, while Preble internalizes Agnes's troubles.
Eli Coats (as Jerry) turns in the show's most memorable performance. He exudes oily menace from the moment he struts on the stage. Coats lets us know right away why Agnes ended up with the man, and why she fears every moment she spends in his company.
The facade slips once. Peter empties a case full of Agnes and Jerry's missing son's clothes and toys to get to a microscope. Jerry's usual bluster fades as he spies one of his son's tiny shirts. You could write volumes about the emotions Coats shows as he hugs the shirt to his face, trying to smell any scent of the long-missing boy. Then the mask comes right back.
No, Bug isn't easy to watch, but the strength of the performances, the direction, and the immersive design make it impossible to turn your head away from this messy tragedy.