It’s not often that one has the opportunity to see psychological horror played out on stage. Pratfalls and buffoonery abound. Studies in tragedy crop up weekly. Musical theater is so prevalent that it has become its own sub-genre. But plays devoted to the terrors that come from within one’s own mind are few and far between. It was thus with great joy that I read that one of Boulder’s newest theater companies was bringing Tracy Letts’ Bug to town.
Having previously seen Bug in both its theatrical and cinematic forms and enjoyed both versions immensely, I brought some hefty expectations to Devil’s Thumb Productions’ second-night performance at the Dairy Center for the Arts. An intense examination of co-dependence, paranoia and loneliness, Bug pushes boundaries (it’s one of the few NC-17 plays you’ll see) and strives to make the audience uncomfortable even as it entertains.
Set entirely in a seedy motel room off some interstate in Oklahoma, Bug opens with Agnes White (Kirsten Deane) silhouetted in the doorway smoking a cigarette and sipping her first of many adult beverages. Agnes, a waitress at a dive bar, is damaged goods. Her every movement and syllable are infused with anger and sorrow.
Her motel room is her self-imposed prison cell in which she attempts to blot out her pain with drugs and booze.
One night, Agnes’ friend R.C. (Haley M. Driscoll) shows up bearing gifts of cocaine and a new acquaintance, Peter Evans (Graham Emmons). From the get-go, Peter presents as twitchy and slightly out of phase with the rest of the world. Though polite and mild-mannered, his early statement that coke isn’t bad for you as long as you smoke it rather than snort it foreshadows his mental instability.
In a halting, heartbreakingly plausible way, Agnes and Peter begin to fall for one another. Slowly, they reveal why they are such broken souls, and they take solace in each other’s misery and company. For a time, it even looks like some impossible alchemy could be at work that will transform them into functional, perhaps even happy, people.
Then, the first bug appears, and everything goes to hell. Broken up only by the occasional visits from Agnes’ ex-husband, Jerry (Sean Scrutchins), R.C. and, much later, a mysterious figure known as Dr. Sweet (Scott G. Hartman), Agnes and Peter spiral from drugged-out misfits to something far, far worse. It’s them against the world, and the world has no intention of losing.
Bug demands excellent performances from its two leads. One or the other of them is in every scene, and no other characters truly command the audience’s attention. Deane and Emmons throw themselves into their roles, and for the most part get them right. Especially in the second act, they bring the madness of their situation to the fore. That said, I would like to have seen an even deeper level of commitment from them, a level that would completely obliterate the line between actor and character. While neither one of them seemed afraid, nor did they seem fearless.
Where Bug excels is in its production design. Credit Scenic Designer Shannon Meihaus for her work on Agnes’ motel room. With its water-stained wallpaper, half smoked cigarettes and generic corn flakes, the motel room is really a sixth character, and an important one at that.
The room mirrors Agnes and Peter’s descent as it evolves throughout the course of the play. Scott Thorson’s sound design is equally good with its passing tractor-trailers and ominous helicopters giving the only glimpses into the world outside of the motel.
Working on a shoestring budget and with relatively young talent, Devil’s Thumb had its work cut out for it with Bug. While they deliver a passable piece of theater, I wish that this Bug had gotten deeper under my skin.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified sound designer Scott Thorson.