Tracy Letts’ “Bug” is a skin-crawling experience. And for producer Jonathan Mares, director Kris Shaw and actress Jennifer Pagan, that pervasive creepiness is exactly what ensnared them in the material’s web.
Producer, director and actor hope audiences are similarly entangled when the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 1996 play begins its run at The AllWays Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 7.
After his theater company presented Letts’ equally compelling and repellent “Killer Joe” last year, Mares found numerous patrons and theater aficionados urging him to produce “Bug.” He didn’t need much encouragement.
“It fits into everything I like in a play,” Mares said. “When I go to movies or the theater, I want to be put through the wringer, experience all the emotions. An hour and 45 minutes of the visceral gamut.”
Along with its earlier companion piece, “Killer Joe,” “Bug” is one of the great “Grand Guignols” of the past 25 years, meaning dark and bloody drama with questionable, or no, morals. The play solidified Letts’ place as one of the rising talents of American theater.
Letts’ tale tracks the disintegration of waitress Agnes White in a hornets’ nest of a hotel in an isolated part of Oklahoma. On the run from her abusive husband and dealing with deeper issues of loss, the binge drinking Agnes strikes up a relationship with the itinerant Peter Evans, who has more than a few secrets underneath an already troubled surface.
What follows is a series of comically paranoid and shockingly riveting horrors as the characters slip deeper into delusion, co-dependence and a suspicion that the room might be infested.
“When I first read the script, I found myself both laughing and horrified. The work was edgy, provocative, seedy and disgusting,” Mares said. “I loved it.”
“I like plays that put the audience into the action,” he said. “We’re going to have the house as close to the stage as possible. I want our audiences in that room with Agnes and Peter.”
Shaw, the director who helmed this year’s “The Normal Heart” for Mares’ production company, describes the play as “an acerbic, funny and exciting romp through the underbelly of American culture with dark flawed characters that are fun for actors to jump into.”
Pagan, who recently finished her acclaimed one-woman show “Shoebox Lounge,” plays the troubled Agnes in a cast that includes Ian Hoch as Peter, Andrea Watson as R.C., and Casey Groves as Jerry. She believes the challenge in presenting a woman who may or may not be seeing reality clearly comes from maintaining the clarity of character in Letts’ increasingly unbalanced world.
How do you play crazy? How do you play someone who is paranoid? What are the ways you show that on stage without it becoming all about that? These are Pagan’s biggest concerns for the role.
“I think the trick is not to lose sight of the character’s wants,” she said. “For all the terrible behavior she engages in, the drinking, the abuse — smoking crack — all of it has to be grounded in why she has come to this place, who she is escaping from, and what does she want?”
Shaw agrees and sees his major challenge as maintaining control of the story while the actors’ characters descend deeper into madness.
“I have to work at disseminating the plot information at a metered pace, even as my actors want to signal their true intentions and play the underbelly up front,” he said. “I work at holding the reins tightly so as to build to the rather violent, very entertaining, yet extreme ending.”
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.