Tracy Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his intense family drama August: Osage County, premiered his play Bug in London almost 20 years ago.
A new South Florida production of Bug, a joint effort of Evening Star Productions and Infinite Abyss at the Abyss Stage in Wilton Manors, underscores a truth about a piece that is both intense and creepy: Its theme of paranoia about secret government programs is even more resonant today than when Letts dreamed his play up.
Letts, seen recently as the ruthlessly manipulative Andrew Lockhart on the Showtime series Homeland, understands a human being at the end of his rope. Or hers.
Two of them, Gulf War vet Peter Evans (Todd Bruno) and abused waitress Agnes White (Erynn Dalton), meet and all too briefly find a lust-driven respite from their hard-luck lives. But the outside world intrudes in the form of Agnes’ violent ex-husband Jerry (Dominick J. Daniel) and Peter’s hard-wired delusions. Peter’s madness proves contagious, so much so that Agnes is willing — compelled, even — to follow him toward oblivion.
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Staged by Evening Star’s Rosalie Grant, with a pointedly low-rent set by Keith Grant, Jim Gibbons and Lisa Earhart, the Abyss production captures the volatility of living on the edge of financial and emotional ruin. Dalton’s Agnes uses drugs to escape the hovering trauma of a long-ago tragedy involving her son and the menace of her abuser’s unwelcome reappearance in her life. Peter seems to be on the run from government captors, but his dangerous fantasies have burrowed into him so deeply that they seem to flow through his veins.
Bug, which got a great production at GableStage in 2004, is a tough play to watch. The simulated drug use, smoking and snorting, is the least of it. Jerry slugs Agnes, overpowers her even though she fights back, and Daniel and Dalton do a convincing job of conveying a relationship that’s harrowing physically and emotionally. When the smooth-talking government shrink Dr. Sweet (Gibbons) finally comes for Peter, a scene that may remind you of a particularly grisly moment from the movie Hanibal ensues. And even though a crucial bit takes place behind Agnes’ filthy sofa bed, the result is horrifically bloody.
During a preview performance, the cast, which includes Rachel Finley as Agnes’ lesbian buddy R.C., was still working out timing and intensity. Sound (maybe because of air-conditioning going on and off?) is sometimes an issue, occasionally obscuring dialogue, and the actors need to be conscious of projecting more.
Bruno has made the choice of playing Peter as a mild-mannered guy with a lisp, which gives Daniel’s Jerry ammunition for mocking the intruder, but it somewhat undercuts Bruno’s journey as an increasingly disturbing human time bomb. Dalton, on the other hand, fearlessly embodies a woman who uses drugs to achieve temporary oblivion — though like Peter, she’s never free of the things that haunt her. Unlike the clothing they both strip away at the end of the play, their torment isn’t so easily shed.
Today, a mouse click can instantly summon humanity at its worst onto your computer screen. Bug takes its time, but over the course of a couple of hours, it will get under your skin.
If you go
What: ‘Bug’ by Tracy Letts.
Where: Evening Star Productions-Infinite Abyss show at the Abyss Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, through Aug. 29.
Cost: $25 ($10 students).
Information: 561-447-8829 or www.eveningstarproductions.org.