Generally speaking, the further into a nightmare one goes, the less likely it is to last. The desperate leap from the burning building usually allows the dreamer to emerge into consciousness at just the moment when things look worst. But that’s not how things work in Tracy Letts’s play Bug, a vivid nightmare with no trapdoor at the end.
Agnes (Leslie Gangl Howe) has hit bottom. She’s holed up in an Oklahoma City motel room with her supply of wine and her crack pipe, and, as the play opens, she keeps getting heavy breathing phone calls from her ex, a recently released convict named Goss (Henry Brown). A blackout occurs, and when the lights come back up on the show’s first full scene, Agnes’s friend R.C. (Laura Criswell) is chopping up some powder on a mirror and justifying bringing a young stranger named Peter into Agnes’s life.
From the moment Peter (Joe Jordan) emerges from the bathroom, the play begins to gather speed like a runaway tractor-trailer headed down a steep hill. Peter knows his way around a crack pipe and takes a few hits, but he refuses the powder on the table-the first of many paranoid distinctions he will enforce over the course of the long evening ahead. This role, based in part on the author’s perceptions of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, is a tour de force for Jordan, who throws everything he’s got into this godforsaken son of a preacher man. By the time he’s done, Peter is locked in the grip of a visceral delusion that leaves him covered in blood and ready to kill if necessary to sustain his paranoid world view. The menacing Goss, as played by Henry Brown, has violence on his side, but Jordan’s version of Peter is violence-sudden, self-consuming, and deadly. Dr. Sweet (David Brainard) meets an unpleasant fate within minutes of entering the room, and by the time Agnes and Peter embrace for the play’s unforgettable final image, there’s nothing and nobody left in their world but each other, and maybe some bugs.
The subject matter will put this one off limits for many, but those in search of a dazzling night of theater should not let the demons scare them off. Gangl Howe and Jordan give two of the best performances of the season in this shocking, yet powerful and still somehow familiar love story.