‘Bug’ at Dominion Stage

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Directed by Jennifer Lyman, Dominion Stage’s presentation of Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts’ Bug explores timely issues of vulnerability, loneliness, isolation, substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence – all while delving down a rabbit hole of madness, paranoia, fantasy and psychosis.

Mike Rudden and Jo Sullivan. Photo by  Matt Liptak).

Mike Rudden and Jo Sullivan. Photo by Matt Liptak).

Letts’ 18-year-old play, made into a film in 2006 (starring Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr.), is still very much a work reflecting our time: though the objects of mistrust may have shifted, conspiracy theories continue to linger. That hook, and the knife-edge balance between comic hysteria and tragic horror is amplified in Lyman’s very intimate production.

Set in a cramped, seedy Oklahoma City motel room, Bug centers on a divorced, middle-aged, lonely waitress, Agnes (Jo Sullivan), who has a fondness for cocaine, isolation and guilt. Agnes hides in her hotel room, in a haze of cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, hoping to avoid her physically abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Mike Fox), who was just released from prison.

The set by Jared Davis and Donna Reynolds, along with Jeffrey Auerbach’s moodily effective lighting design, establish Agnes in a perpetual penumbra. In a long, deliberate and silent opening, Agnes seems agitated and aimless. The telephone rings but no one speaks. Again. And, again.

Into her sordid life comes Peter (Mike Rudden), a mysterious, socially-awkward Gulf War veteran introduced by her lesbian co-worker and friend, R.C. (Elizabeth Hansen). As Agnes becomes more involved with Peter, he opens up and shares his theories about the war in Iraq, UFOs, the Oklahoma City bombing, cult suicides and secret government experiments on soldiers – eventually, drawing Agnes into his delusions.

As Bug unfolds, what steadily manifests is the bonding of Agnes and Peter in their emotional extremities. They have met at the end of the world, menaced in turn by infestation, by distressing visits from Agnes’ returned ex-husband, Jerry (Mike Fox), who is possessive, intimidating and brutal, as well as by an enigmatic Dr. Sweet (Gary Cramer), who is not above helping himself to a pipe of crack. The rhythm builds, sores propagate, and a thrum of helicopters and passing traffic reinforces the paranoia. Agnes and Peter are on their way to ending the world, locked in mutually reinforcing delusion and hysteria.

One of the production’s most poignant moments is when Agnes (Jo Sullivan) forcefully throws R.C. (Elizabeth Hansen) out of her motel room, wraps a blanket around Peter (Mike Rudden) and cradles him like a baby. Agnes is seemingly clinging to the son she inexplicably lost a decade earlier, and the happiness he brought her. And, she is beyond hope.

Bug’s intrigue lies in this singular question: Is Peter crazy, or is he telling the truth? Mike Rudden expertly navigates this complex terrain, as Peter, appearing extremely responsible, honest and likeable, yet embodying a disconcerting awkwardness and vulnerability that could be just as dangerous as it is endearing.

Rudden portrays Peter with a fair amount of restraint. He purposefully plays low key when the character is first introduced and gradually cranks up the intensity-dial as the play moves along. His boyish looks, impeccable timing, transparency and ease add to the realism of the production, as do the entire cast’s strong performances.

Jo Sullivan particularly shines as Agnes in her most emotional scenes, especially in Agnes’ manic march toward insanity near the play’s end. The emotional build through the closing scenes of the production is gripping, however much your intellect may resist it. Sullivan, as Agnes, teeters between a strong-headed woman and a fragile loner, the former merely serving as a mask for the latter. This makes her relationship with the unbalanced Peter all the more believable, even when the script ventures into its darkest moments.

Dominion Stage’s production of Bug is an intensely thrilling, visceral experience that provokes and envelops all your senses – its gritty realism and penetrating tension might even have you itching by the end.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Bug plays through October 18, 2014 at Dominion Stage performing at the Gunston Arts Center’s Theater One — 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets,purchase them at the door, or online.

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