A production that initially seemed to be about a dysfunctional nuclear family of two, with a lost child, turned into an exercise in pure paranoia, that didn't have quite enough theatrical payoff to justify its extreme subject matter.
Appearing to delight some and alienate others, the Oklahoma City Theatre Company version of “Bug” is set in 1997 at a “no tell” motel on “the outskirts of Oklahoma City.” The script is by Tulsa-born author Tracy Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his later play, “August: Osage County,” a superb family drama.
Paula Dawson was surprisingly sympathetic and achingly vulnerable as Aggie, who rents the motel room near the bar where she works, and relies on drugs (smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine) to make her bleak life bearable.
Dawson seemed tough and self-contained at first, but soon let her abusive, out-on-parole ex-husband, played with just enough redneck menace by Tyler Waits, invade her space, and slug her, without warning, in the first act.
Appearing just in time to save her, apparently, was Jeff Burleson, who offered a nicely nuanced performance in the relatively restrained first act as Peter, a man of mystery who respects women, but they're the least of his worries.
Burleson shifted emotional gears and convincingly ratcheted up the pressure, little by little, from the time that he first discovers a bug lurking in their bed at the motel, during a romantic scene before intermission.
But it was only after the break that the behavior of Peter, an AWOL mental patient who has escaped from a military hospital after several years, became truly alarming, threatening to drown the play in a sea of paranoia.
Burleson did succeed in playing the role with a minimum of overkill, as he investigated the bugs he thinks are sucking his blood under a microscope and drew Aggie into his possibly paranoid, possibly true conspiracy theories.
Things reached a cut-rate crescendo when Peter attacked Jeni White as a female doctor, who subsequently tried to take him back into custody or save him after he mutilated himself to remove the bugs. Christine Lanning was another theatrical asset as R.C., a friend who tries to save Aggie by getting her to go home with her, rather than going over Niagara Falls in Peter's leaky barrel.
Nudity and occasional four-letter words were discreetly handled, but seemed almost beside the point, and were far from the R-rated play's most fascinating and disturbing elements. Ironically, some of the play's conspiracy theories seemed dated, with references to a 1954 Cold War meeting, Ted Kaczynski, Jim Jones and the Middle East, sounding a bit passe relative to today's talk about torture, drones and school killings.
Loud, static rock music and noises that sounded like construction or helicopters suggested chaotic conditions outside, while the motel room itself was depicted in realistic rather than exaggerated terms, except for bug lights and foil in the final scene.
Directed by Lance Garrett, this coproduction with the Ghostlight Theatre Club was almost enough to make you miss “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a play about good, old-fashioned poisonings by a pair of charming spinsters who look like they wouldn't hurt a fly.
Not for the squeamish, the easily offended or for those with more than their share of phobias, “Bug” is well acted and worth attending during its run.
— John Brandenburg