San Diego, CA---Playwright, screenwriter, ensemble member of Steppenwolf, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama and Tony for Best Play “August: Osage County”, Tracy Letts is the man of the hour these days. Since his “August: Osage County” movie (made from the much better play) with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts was announced as an Oscar contender, Hollywood is just about tripping all over itself hoping at least one of these fine actors, or perhaps both will bring home some Oscar Gold.
As much as I loved the play and the dysfunctional folks of Osage County and what he does with them, there is another side to Letts that some might not even be aware of and that would be his 1996 psychodrama “Bug” now getting a particularly gutsy airing at ION Theatre through Feb. 8th. Lets just say that Letts lets it all hang out!
Ironically enough, “Bug” also takes place on the outskirts of Oklahoma (it must be the water) where Agnes White (Hannah Logan) is hunkered down in a sleazy motel hoping to fade into the dust-scape and avoid her ex, Jerry (Tim Schubert), a physically violent guy, just released from prison. Aside from the fact that he freaks Agnes out by calling and just breathing into the phone, he has a habit of showing up unannounced wherever she might be.
Neurotic is probably a mild way to describe Agnes what with her snorting, drinking and smoking (you know what). Instinct dictates it’s to forget or dull the pain. You be the judge. Her young son was abducted on her watch while she was grocery shopping and she never recovered from that trauma. She’s needy, depressed and frightened for her life.
Her lesbian best friend and co-worker RC (Amanda Morrow), is a tough cookie and one who is good source of comfort and support to her friend. She’s also a good buffer between Agnes and Jerry. Yet for reasons we will never know, RC brought Peter Evans (Steve Froehlich) home with her from their shared job as cocktail waitresses, to Agnes’ suffocating motel room. She and Agnes have a few snorts and drinks, she leaves without Peter.
The handsome, clean-cut stranger refuses to snort with Agnes but doesn’t mind a good drink or two or even a few puffs from her glass ‘pipe’. But that’s not the real Peter. That one is about to emerge as the action progresses. Ultimately not much good karma comes with this handsome stranger.
Peter, we learn is a veteran of the first Gulf War who has some wild ideas about the government, the CIA and the doctors who have/were treating him. He’s convinced that the doctors really ‘worked him over’ with shots, pills, running tests, jabbing and asking all kinds of weird questions. “They had every kind of doctor you can imagine.” “I went AWOL” “I don’t know that I’m not carrying some disease with me, some contagion…typhoid, Legionnaires’ ‘disease, some government screw-up..”
He’s completely maxed out paranoid about the war in Iraq, UFO’s, the Oklahoma Bombing and secret experiments on those returning home from the Gulf, smoke detectors, (they’ve got americium-241, a radioactive element in them) and anything else brewing in his mind. But more frighteningly, the more time the two spend together the more influence he has over her.
Ultimately he is also able to convince Agnes that his body is infested with what he calls genetically engineered super-aphids and most likely, hers is as well. That’s when I began scratching.
After spending one night together in her bed, we are witness to the beginnings of what will become a most terrifying downward spiral trip into the rabbit hole, up close and personal.
According to Peter, the room they now share is infested with bugs. After he does a complete search of the room, stripping the bed of all linens and combing the bedding where he thinks there might be bedbugs, he’s convinced they must be coming from him.
As witness the flypaper hanging from the ceilings, any and all kinds of bug zapping devices, tin foil covering windows and doors and a microscope to identify each and every one of the bugs that they ‘see’ or ‘catch’, the two are completely bug paranoid. Not only do they play off each other convincing both RC and Jerry that there are bugs, they have the scars and bloodied bodies to show for it.
Just topping off the situation, a Dr. Sweet (Eric Poppik) comes a calling. If you have any thoughts about Peter and Agnes, wait until you meet up with this one. Claiming that he was Peter’s doctor or perhaps a consultant, he tries to convince Peter to come back with him. Is he or is he not one of the government agents Peter is so fearful of? He is at first somewhat believable, but after a few minutes of his babble and a few drags from ‘the pipe’ sitting on the kitchen table…well.
From the very beginning when the phone keeps ringing, to no avail, to the eye-popping ending, artistic director Claudio Raygoza with assist by Yolanda Franklin build up the pressure like a hot air balloon just waiting to burst! His characters are so defined that they are all at the same time unpredictable/predictable, sane/insane and completely immersed in their characters.
We last saw Steve Froehlich in “Reasons To Be Pretty”. He was the guy trying to pick up the pieces of his life after his now ex learned that he called her ‘ordinary’. There is nothing ordinary about Agnes White or Peter Evans. In fact one might even go so far as to call them extraordinary but not so much in a positive way. Strange might be more fitting.
Let’s just say that I was sitting no more than a few feet away from this young man during this performance and I can’t remember seeing anyone as intense and focused as he in some time. Froehlich’s transition from Mr. nice guy to paranoid schizophrenic happens right before our eyes so that one can feel the theatre getting closer and closer, almost as claustrophobic and suffocating as the motel room they share.
Newcomer Hannah Logan's Agnes matches her obsessed partner chapter and verse especially after he convinces her that bugs are, in fact, infesting their space. But even more so he has her convinced that the helicopter whirling sounds they hear overhead is government surveillance.
Her descent into insanity is sadly as chilling as is his. Feeding into the themes of loneliness, loss, co dependency and poverty, they egg each other on finally choosing not to get help at the beginning that might have sent them on another path, yet forging instead toward the more familiar road, that will put them out of their misery.
Strong support comes from Amanda Morrow’s R.C., Agnes’ quirky best friend, who does see through the situation but is in no position to do anything about it. She is wonderful to watch; so natural. Tim Schuber’s Jerry Goss is about as intimidating on the one hand as Peter is on the other side of the coin. Both are cut from the same cloth, but use their power in different degrees. Then there is Eric Poppick’s Dr. Sweet. There’s a character right out of some horror movie; calm, cool, collected and ready to pounce when no one is looking. He does it well.
Raygoza and Ron Logan designed the scruffy looking motel ‘suite’ complete with bedroom, kitchen and bathroom with playing space in the center of the room that looked like the extension of the bedroom. All the rooms are furnished in what some might call early hand me down, but it’s a place to call home.
Karin Filijin’s lighting is perfect, setting the tone for what’s to come and Mary Summerday’s costumes are appropriately fitting. Do be forewarned, there is full on nudity. Evan Kendig’s technical effects like the car noises outside helicopter sounds and zaps from the bug zappers intensify this production ten fold.
Having seen this play before, I experienced the same frightening awareness that there are folks out there, who are not under any supervision, that behave this way and truly work themselves up into a frenzy, paralyzed with fear that someone is out to get them.
Letts first play “Killer Joe”, produced by Ion in 2009 was also a ‘black comedy’ as is “August: Osage County” and of course “Bug”. It seems for Letts, the fun never ends. “Bug” might not be as much fun a barrel of monkeys, but when you leave the theatre after seeing this production, you’ll know that you just caught the Letts bug for better or worse.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb. 8th
Organization: Ion Theatre Company
Production Type: Drama
Where: 3704 6th Ave. Hillcrest
Ticket Prices: $15.00-$35.00