There are moments when it's hard to watch what's happening in the Mercury Players Theatre production of Bug (through Feb. 3, Bartell Theatre). But we do, just like we slow down when we pass a bad car wreck. This is not theater for the squeamish or the susceptible. But it is good theater, and director Michael Herman's excellent cast delivers two hours of a complex, suspenseful spiral into madness.
Bug starts out innocently enough with some friends doing lines and smoking crack in a rundown motel room. There's also some nudity and a little wife-beating - but then things begin to get creepy. That's creepy as in creepy crawlers.
Agnes (Karen Moeller) is hiding out from her brutal ex-husband when her friend RC (Andrea Varda) shows up with an AWOL Gulf War vet in tow. As Agnes, Moeller has a shopworn luminance, and later, when she beds the lonely Peter Evans (Moritz Burnard), it's the last tender moment in the play.
Peter wakes up convinced he's being bitten by bugs. He shares his dark military secret with love-hungry Agnes and soon she's seeing bugs too. In scene after shocking scene, Moeller and Burnard raise the level of tension and discomfort as powerful delusions drive Agnes and Peter far beyond flypaper and Raid to grisly, bloody acts.
Douglas Holtz, as ex-husband Goss, supplies a reality check and much needed comic relief. Goss is violent, nasty and vulgar, but Holtz plays him with bounce - and he's rational. We're almost sorry to see him go when Agnes throws him out along with RC. Holtz and Varda bring intensity and color to supporting roles that give the audience a breather without slowing the action.
Peter has researched the Tuskegee syphilis study and those CIA experiments with LSD - and then there's Jonestown - and the Oklahoma bombing - and that's not all. In Bug, playwright Tracy Letts reflects on a culture of secrecy, conspiracy and institutional betrayal where, at a certain point, everything seems to fall into place.
But is our military really capable of experiments that implant bugs under Peter's skin? Why do those copters hover overhead? And that double-talking Dr. Sweet (Sarah Whelan) is clearly untrustworthy. Bug leaves lingering unresolved innuendoes for us paranoids with long memories.
Not to forget important details in this unnerving production: Cara Peterson's makeup work draws gasps, and Kristin Jacobson is responsible for the subtle atmospheric sounds of crickets, passing cars and menacing helicopters.