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THEATER REVIEW: “Bug” at ion theatre

Some people like to walk on the wild side. Playwright Tracy Letts likes to explore the dark side of humanity. In his 1999 “Bug,” Letts plumbs the depths of paranoia exacerbated by alcohol, drugs and violence.

A riveting production of “Bug” runs through Feb. 2 at ion theatre in Hillcrest, directed by Claudio Raygoza and assisted by Yolanda Franklin.

Agnes White’s seedy motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City bespeaks decay, from the filthy room air conditioner that only works if you slug it to the crumbling outside walls. Inside, the waitress (Hannah Logan) paces and smokes, becoming increasingly unnerved by repeated say-nothing phone calls from ex-husband Jerry Goss (Tim Schubert), recently sprung from prison and apparently headed her way.

When Agnes’ no-nonsense girlfriend R.C. (Amanda Morrow) shows up with cocaine and drifter Peter (Steve Froehlich) in tow, Agnes – longing for connection – offers the homeless Gulf War vet her floor, unaware that she’s signed up for more trouble than Jerry ever gave her.

You know there’s something strange about Peter when Agnes’ smoke detector goes off and he tells her to throw it away because it’s radioactive. And when they share the bed, and Peter jumps up claiming he’s been bitten, it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or call 911 during the following grimly comic, nude bug search, as they feverishly tear sheets and pillowslips off the bed.

But his psychological problem (he’s convinced he’s been a guinea pig for unnamed medical experiments and that “The experiment is over and they’ve come to pick up their petri dish”) connects in some fateful way with Agnes’ neediness. She’s desperately lonely and still in mourning for her 5-year-old son, apparently kidnapped from a supermarket a decade ago.

Tension – and Peter’s paranoia – escalate in the second act, especially when Eric Poppick as Dr. Sweet shows up. Is he a benign or malevolent presence? The final scene leaves the audience emotionally drained but aware that they’ve seen some extraordinary – if creepy – theater.

Logan turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Agnes, trying to hold it together despite a life which has not been easy.

Froehlich is eerily convincing as the paranoid Peter. And when he mentions unsavory actions like the U.S. government’s infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, you almost wonder who’s really crazy.

Morrow is solid as Agnes’ lesbian colleague, and adds much needed comic relief. Schubert’s Jerry adds a looming and frightening presence.

A particular shout-out to Melanie Chen for her nerve-wracking sound design. Karin Filijan’s lighting is fine as always, as were Mary Summerday’s costumes.

This play is not for all tastes. The actors go all out, baring psyches and sometimes bodies in a story that barely lets you breathe.

In these days of Edward Snowden and other paranoia magnets, being bugged by insects seems the least of our worries. Unless.....

The details

“Bug” plays through Feb. 8 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.