A winner of a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his play August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts’ mother said of her son, “I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead.”
Letts’ second play, Bug, is the latest production to go up on the Teatro stage by Renegade Theater Company. An intimate story of yearning need, violence, madness, and despair, director Anika Thompson takes on Letts’ loaded script with five actors and prepares the audience for a trip on the crazy train that comes up on one not with a thunderclap blow to the body, but with a seeping, discomfiting dread. The show opened to a full house audience.
The action of the play takes place entirely in a hopelessly run down motel room where Agnes (Molly O’Neill) an aging waitress with miles of bad luck and bad decisions bearing down on her physical and emotional existence, ekes out an existence hiding out from her abusive ex, medicating her fear and pain with vodka cokes and the occasional line of coke.
Much of that comes to a change when Agnes’ best friend, R.C. (Erin McConnell) a tough talking, swaggering lesbian brings a friend, Peter (Cory Anderson) over one night to hang out in Agnes’ motel room.
The play opens arrestingly, a ringing phone, the seedy motel room lit in neon, and Agnes staring expectantly and with dread across the room at the phone. Molly O’Neill’s resigned demeanor as the quietly complicated Agnes lets the audience in just enough to be shut out of knowing the intimate details of all the personal demons she must keep inside. As the show progresses, the slow unravelling is a masterful peeling back of layers coupled with new, brilliant red scars both physically and mentally as Agnes’ relationship with Peter becomes as horrifyingly debilitating as anything else in her life.
And that begins its slow crawl under Agnes’ skin with the arrival of Peter and R.C. McConnell occupies her moments on stage with underlying sexual tension, lounging and languid in O’Neill’s lap as they snort lines of coke on the lumpy couch that also serves as Agnes’ fold out bed. In comes Peter and Cory Anderson’s initial presentation is that of awkward teen grown in to creepy adult, gawking over the possibility of burrowing into the life of the obviously lonely and withering Agnes.
In the opening scenes, the eery chemistry between O’Neill and Anderson becomes hypnotically apparent. Moving inexorably from caretaking (Agnes allows the essentially homeless Peter to camp on her floor at night) to codependent, O’Neill gives a measured performance from early moments of self-protection when she makes clear that the last thing she needs is a man to raging when Peter’s paranoia breaks through for the first time and he leaves her alone in her motel room before confessing that he had been manipulated by the government.
In the spaces between Agnes’ and Peter’s burgeoning dysfunction comes Jerry, Agnes’ abusive ex-con ex, played with remarkable believability and considerable presence by Renegade newcomer Lee Gundersheimer. Physically imposing and vocally compelling, Gundersheimer plays the role with a subtle mix of restrained humor while keeping his character’s threat of violence always in the forefront of every interaction he has on stage. It’s an edge that one rarely sees exhibited successfully on stage without it being farcical or contrived, but Gundersheimer’s performance is spot-on; at turns mockingly derisive with Peter and incredulously perplexed with Agnes’ less-than-thrilled reception to his sudden, threatening return to her already burdened life. It’s all manipulation, though, and well-executed.
And then, of course, there are bugs. Bugs in the motel room. Bugs in bodies. Bugs in the mind. The motif is clever, permeating the script and in the vulnerable moments on stage. When things get complicated for Peter and his already buzzed and overloaded circuitry, his fear and paranoia manifest in creepy crawlies. Are they real? Aren’t they? Whether or not they are, the buggy complexities of Peter and Agnes’ relationship come to a frenetic and uncomfortable linking as the story continues to unfold on stage, beginning with the emotional and physical intimacy conveyed when both are finally sharing a bed together and when Peter is completely naked, pacing the room, inspecting the sheets for more bugs as he reveals his personal vulnerabilities. Script-wise, it’s a clever symbolism. On stage, combined with the lighting, nudity, and encroaching reality that this won’t be an easy ride for either of them, the overall effect is engrossing; that is, if you’re looking for something deeper.
We learn, through halting confessions and through R.C. bits of Peter’s tortured past. And although this rush of information seems to come more rapidly in the second half of the production in a marked contrast from the slow subtleties written in to the first act, it is, at times, visually shocking, if sudden. For their part, O’Neill and Anderson make an obvious departure from the shyness and guardedness of their initial night of getting to know each other on Agnes’ couch to a fully flamed sharing of panicked delusions. O’Neill is adroitly successful at pushing out a performance depicting her character’s dependence and fear of losing Peter through her fading grasp that something might actually be terribly wrong. It’s a choice her character makes between two unacceptable options. Anderson, too, manipulates the audience in the growing departure from “aw shucks” sexually nonthreatening boy next door to full on madman with skill and gradual beckoning.
In the closing scenes of the show, Jody Kujawa makes an appearance as Dr. Sweet, in an unexpected departure from his usual larger-than-life roles, for which he is well-known. Through Sweet, Peter’s conspiracy theories and delusions are revealed, somewhat too conveniently, script-wise. Nevertheless, Kujawa adds an interesting and valuable twist to the show.
The set design is very well done–the despair of the script is translated nicely with the burdened couch and fading accessories. The lighting design by Andy Bennett is a key component of the show’s visual success with remarkably vivid uses of light to convey the moodiness of the night-time sequences, bathed in reds and blues and to contrast with the harsh slants of daylight evoking uncomfortable realities. The scene change music isn’t helpful and is actually sometimes distracting from the moods being created in scenes on stage.
From halting letting down of personal barriers to the revelations of personal demons, Bug, is a provocative script that delivers an emotional punch on stage in ways overt and subtle. As a writer, I eschew the term “edgy” when used to describe a company’s repertoire since it is more often trite than meaningful in its conveyance. However, the continued choices of Renegade Theater Company in pushing envelopes are much needed fare in this creative community. Provocative is the appropriate word. And that’s what this production is from opening to explosive conclusion. See it.
BUG. Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anika Thompson for Renegade Theater Company at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth. WITH Molly O’Neill, Cory Anderson, Erin McConnell, Lee Gundersheimer, and Jody Kujawa. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays through November 19. Curtain time: 8 p.m. This review is based on the November 3 opening night performance.