Title: Bug. Playwright: Tracy Letts
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: $20-$110; Steppenwolf.org . Runs through: Dec. 12
When you hear the word "bug," do you think of an insect, a microbe or a surveillance device? For audiences at the premiere performance of Tracy Letts' second play of his career, the definition first coming to mind was probably "delusional" (as in "bughouse") an apt description for the noir-esque descent of a drug-riddled couple who allow their fear and helplessness to get the better of them.
That was in 1996, though, before ubiquitous cell phones and the internet made the very air we breathed a fertile conduit for intrusive social aggression. Even in 2001, at its Chicago debut at Red Orchid Theater, Letts' dystopian vision addressed an age when the domestic implementation of biochemical weapons and mobile household-monitoring appliances were still the stuff of science fiction; however, by the time Steppenwolf revisited the minimalistic thriller in 2020, unregulated dissemination of spurious information had rendered the notion of living rooms papered in tin foil or self-surgery to remove dermatological parasites commonplace, if not yet wholly acceptable. Then came the invasion of a mysterious disease whose asymptomatic camouflage threatened the most intimate corners of our cosmologies.
One can argue the evidence of the last few years regarding poverty, isolation and a diet of caffeine, alcohol and crack cocaine exacerbating the stress of our always uncertain human condition, or that of a PTSD-afflicted Persian Gulf war veteran and a divorcee encumbered with an abusive ex-spouse and the memory of a lost child exemplifying Nelson Algren's adage about the folly of taking up with someone whose troubles are worse than your own. These hindsight observations only arrive after multiple viewings, however. Coming on the heels of a nearly two-year exile reducing fact and fiction to hearsay, what playgoer can say for sure that the friendly doctor purporting to aid the terrified lovers is truly the play's voice of reason and not a Disneyworld-grade automaton; or that a faulty air-conditioner, not helicopters, could be the source of the rotor blades heard circling overhead?
The spacious Steppenwolf stage could be expected to undermine the claustrophobic urgency necessary to draw us into the mindset of the fugitives, but scenic designer Yakeshi Kata, lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designer Josh Schmidt have crafted an interior landscape as microscopically stark as an Edward Hopper painting, focusing our attention on its smallest details to immediately invoke a surface plausibility that never veers into X-Files caricature. For proof of its success, you have merely to note the point in the two-hour (with intermission) running time that spectators who giggled comfortably at the drolleries of these terrified proles suddenly fall so silent that you can almost hear the walls listening.