Stage & Dance

Review: Balagula's 'Bug' reveals playwright Tracy Letts' emerging voice

As Bug opens, we're rooting for Agnes and Peter. Both are clearly damaged people who have encountered serious obstacles to happiness. So, when they find each other, you really want it to work for them, until it becomes obvious that no good will come from them clinging to one another.

Bug has its almost comically whacked out aspects, with a lead character in Peter who believes he has been infested with aphids that have transmitters that will ultimately help the government track everyone. He is patient zero and Agnes serves as the queen, in their minds.

Balagula Theatre's illuminating production, which opened Sunday night at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, keeps the focus on those relationships that drive the story to its horrific conclusion.

Bug was one of the first successes for playwright Tracy Letts, his first being Killer Joe, a show whose new movie version is coincidentally playing across the street from Natasha's at the Kentucky Theatre. Both shows starred Letts' frequent collaborator Michael Shannon, an Oscar-nominated actor whose stage career started in Lexington at theaters such as Actors Guild of Lexington. Shannon originated the role of Peter, which in Balagula's production is brilliantly played by Zachary Dearing.

Yes, Bug has its scary, absurd streak, which marketers unfortunately emphasized in promoting the 2006 movie version of the play starring the Kentucky duo of Shannon and Ashley Judd. But what's important about Bug is the early evidence of Letts' ear for human desire for love, connection and esteem and the depth of pain when those desires are unrequited.

If you look deep in Bug, it isn't hard to see the seeds of Letts' American masterpiece, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, which received two Lexington productions last season and comes to the big screen next year with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the leads.

Rounding out the leads in Balagula's Bug is a welcome return to Lexington stages in Rachel Rogers, who took a break from Lexington stages after outstanding turns in productions like ActOut Theatre's production of Lot's Daughters.

According to director Ryan Case, Rogers auditioned for the supporting role of R.C,, but watching her embody Agnes, it's hard to conceive of her doing anything else in this show. Mania has always been one of Rogers' strong suits, and she has ample opportunity to let it run rampant.

As the story unfolds, Agnes is a cocktail waitress, partying, living in a seedy motel and nervous that her abusive ex-husband will come looking for her, now that he's out of prison. Her friend, R.C. (Annie Barbera) sort of sets her up with Peter and they awkwardly become lovers. Right after consummating their relationship, Peter stars to see bugs and feels they are biting him all the time. Then Agnes starts to see them too, and the conspiracy theories run rampant.

They seem easy to dismiss, particularly as Peter and Agnes are the only ones who can see the bugs. But Letts provides enough evidence to leave you wondering well after the play has ended.

The theorizing does draw occasional laughs, but this production keeps us focused on the couple's conviction that the infestation and plot are real and the consequences it brings. It is somewhat fair to say Rogers hams up a few scenes too much, but then wouldn't you be crazed if you honestly believed government spy bugs were crawling under your skin.

Rogers best moment is when she throws R.C. out of her motel room and sits in the bed cradling Peter like a baby. She's clinging to the son she mysteriously lost a decade earlier and the happiness he brought her. And she is beyond hope.

Dearing's performance is a study in restraint, revealing Peter's mania slowly, even making you see how a conspiracy theorist could grab seemingly unrelated events and tie them together.

Letts is quickly becoming one of the most important playwrights of the 21st century. Balagula Theatre has opened the 2012-13 theater season in Lexington by giving Central Kentucky audiences another look at his work in a production that shouldn't be missed.