Well that's what gets under your skin in Tracy Letts' play, 'Bug'. Muddy Waters now presents it at the Kranzberg.
I've seen Kirsten Wylder on stage many times; I've acted with her, I've directed her. She's always a delight, but I've never seen her give such an utterly compelling, such a deeply fine and truthful performance as the one she gives as Agnes, the beautifully drawn central character in 'Bug'. She shares the stage with another “personal best” performance—that of Justin Ivan Brown as Peter, the very strange stranger who enters Agnes' life.
'Bug' is Tracy Letts' second play—after 'Killer Joe', and before the hugely acclaimed 'August: Osage County'. Like the latter play 'Bug' is set in the author's native Oklahoma and the speech rings wonderfully true to that locale—both in the writing and in these actors' caring attention to the dialect. The technical term for the stratum of society inhabited by these folks is “trailer trash”—but the characters are blessedly free from caricature.
We meet Agnes, a waitress at a honky-tonk, in the seedy motel room where she lives. Her life has sunk into a round of drink, cigarettes and smoking crack. Years ago she lost—yes, just “lost”—her little son in a grocery store, never to be seen again. Now she finds that her ex-husband, Goss, has been released early from prison and he's eager to force his way back into her life. She's at the end of her rope and that rope is fraying badly. In the muted hell which is her life Agnes has pretty clearly “abandoned all hope”. (And while I'm on Dante, I'll just say that the Italian's Inferno has nothing on the blazing inferno that ends this startling play.)
Agnes' lesbian friend, Ronnie, is very strongly played by Jenn Bock; this engaging actress never fails us. Ronnie drops by and introduces Agnes to Peter who, like Goss, has recently got out of a kind of prison. He's escaped from a secret military medical site where he was confined after some sort of damage in the Gulf War; for four years, Peter claims, he's been subjected to mysterious neurological experiments. He's polite, soft-spoken—almost gentlemanly. Justin Brown gives a gorgeously understated performance—certainly the best I've seen him do. Agnes allows Peter to crash for the night on her floor. Soon, though, she's drawn to him, and the two end up in bed.
In some scenes there is extended nudity—but Miss Wylder and Brown seem not “nude”—just easily, naturally “naked”. It's beautifully and comfortably done. And as Alfred Hitchcock so ably taught us in 'Psycho', nudity conveys a wonderful sense of vulnerability.
The dialogue in the first scenes is filled with some of the most realistic overlappings, fragments and interruptions I've ever heard on stage. It's solid, real-life talk, and it's supported by the very intimate space at the Kranzberg.
Goss, the red-neck ex-con ex-husband, is forcefully played by Jared Sanz Agero. He's one scary guy. When Goss barges and bullies into the scene we expect to watch the workings of a classic love triangle. But no! Act II brings a bizarre turn to the plot.
No sooner have Agnes and Peter made love than Peter is bitten by something—the eponymous “bug” of the title. It's so tiny that Agnes really can't see it, but Peter persuades her that it is real and that it's a mutant blood-sucking aphid—the first of a vast infestation that soon leaves the couple staging an all-out war on the bugs—their once beautiful bodies now covered with vivid infected bites.
So the conflict in this play turns out to be not that of two men for the love of a woman, but that of a million demonic bugs for the bodies and souls of their victims on whom they feed and in whom they breed.
Is this just a science-fiction horror story? Is Peter's tale of a vast conspiracy by the military and billionaires to control mankind true? Or has he merely recruited Agnes into his paranoid delusions? Those bites certainly look real, but they could be only hysterical stigmata.
That's the question that the audience never can quite decide—and they never should be able to. This ambiguity is what makes the play so fascinating. And, as they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not trying to get you!
In the end a rather strange Dr. Sweet* arrives to take Peter back to the hospital/prison. Andrew Kuhlman, who did such splendid comic work recently in 'Henry V', makes the doctor almost kinkily giddy over some secret knowledge he has. This is the only point where I'd disagree with this production. Dr. Sweet should be more serious—and probably older. The appearance of calm reality can be so much more threatening than the almost surrealistic style in which the doctor was portrayed.
But overall Muddy Waters' Bug is a terrific—even an unforgettable production. Congratulations to all and to director Cameron Ulrich.
Be warned: the play is rich in gore and has some quite gut-wrenching self mutilation as the afflicted try desperately to cut out their affliction, leaving Peter's arms, chest and belly covered in fresh wounds. There's a shockingly violent ending. And before the evening's done you will find yourself scratching an imagined itch here and there. But if only for Kirsten Wylder's remarkable performance you should not let yourself miss this show.
'Bug' continues at the Kranzberg through March twenty-fifth. For information visit http://www.muddywaterstheatre.com.
* I was struck by a certain subliminal homage to Tennessee Williams' 'Suddenly Last Summer'. In that play there is also a doctor who comes to take away the “delusional” person. His name is Cukrowicz (Polish for “Sugarson”), but he allows people to call him “Dr. Sugar”. Tracy Letts' choice of the name “Sweet” for his doctor can't be just a coincidence. In 'Suddenly Last Summer' Williams consciously named the dead gay son “Sebastian” after the martyred saint, and in that play Catherine's description of Sebastian's mutilated body—covered in myriad small wounds—echoes the familiar image of the saint dying under a dozen arrows. In 'Bug' Peter, towards the end, bears a striking resemblance to that image. Just as St. Sebastian died under the military weapon of his day, Peter is under assault by a modern military/industrial weapon—the bugs. In Williams' day the mutilation could only be conveyed by a description of an off-stage event; today we're so blessed (or is it cursed?) as to be able to see it live on stage.