‘Bug’ examines paranoia and re-stages a Steppenwolf play from 1995

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CARRIE COON and Namir Smallwood in rehearsal for “Bug,” playing at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 15. Smallwood is fit to be tied, as he believes that not only their motel room is infested with bugs but his body, as well. (Photo by Lowell Thomas)

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

“Bug,” playing at Steppenwolf Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted St., will have you bugging and questioning what is real and what isn’t. Namir Smallwood and Carrie Coon bring back to the Steppenwolf stage a play that was written by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-Award winning ensemble member Tracy Letts in 1995.

The play addresses folie à deux, which, according to Letts, is a psychological term that means the madness of two—it’s when one person literally catches another person’s psychosis, which also seemed to me kind of like love.

ENSEMBLE MEMBER CARRIE COON in “Bug,” as she looks out into the lonely hallway of the seedy motel in which she has found herself. She thought she would have peace, even in her meager existence, but then came the bugs! (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

The play opens and the Steppenwolf stage is arranged like a seedy Oklahoma hotel room with a lonely waitress named Agnes played by Coon. She meets a wanderer through her best buddy, and the wanderer’s name is Peter, played by a theatre favorite, Small wood. I enjoy Smallwood’s work— I’ve seen him in “True West,” where he played a laid back brother who didn’t particularly have a concrete purpose. I also enjoyed him in Steppenwolf’s “Pass Over,” which Spike Lee recorded with an audience from Saint Sabina Church and made into an Amazon Prime movie. In “Pass Over,” Smallwood was one of two Black men who hung out on the corner all day, imagining how enriched their lives would be if they ever struck it rich. Don’t get me wrong, Smallwood has great range, evidenced by his performances in “Man In Love” and “The Hot L Baltimore.” In “Bug,” he plays a complicated, eccentric man who is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that, while he was in a military hospital, the government had implanted a bug inside his body.

Peter’s relationship with Agnes is based on a fleeting meeting and he has no place to stay, and she offers him a pillow and blanket to sleep on the motel room floor. What ensues is Peter’s pre-occupation with what he first believes is some type of bed bug. His concern later turns to the motel room being totally infested with bugs of all types. He is in a psychotic or delicate state, and he pulls Agnes into his paranoia. “Bug” was originally presented with two white actors in the lead roles. Bringing Smallwood in to play Peter examines “a study of terror and alienation, and the history of the systematic frameworks of racism in our country,” writes Anna D. Shapiro, Steppenwolf Theatre Artistic Director.

This play is fascinating in that you feel for Agnes who got more than she bargained for by fancying up to Peter. But you are really drawn into the fraught world of paranoia as Peter—through his words, actions and physical movements—endear you to his plight; all the while hoping that he gets some relief before he self-destructs while dragging Agnes into his morass of conspiracy theories and hallucinations.

“Bug” is playing through March 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre. For more information, visit https://www.steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/2019-20/bug/.

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