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A palpable paranoia drives this taut drama

Jordan Siegel considers an exterminator.

By John Barry | Posted 4/22/2009

When Single Carrot Theater came up with Tracy Letts' Killer Joe in February, there was a good deal of uncomfortable shuffling. The acting was great, but the play itself, situated in a trailer park, left some theatergoers wondering why a Baltimore theater was heading into that territory. So it's fortunate that a month later Letts is back, at Fells Point Corner Theatre, with Bug.

Some of the elements of Killer Joe are alive and well in Bug: over-the-top violence and a nutcase at the center of it all. The play ends with a pile of corpses, mostly belonging to people who would bring our property values down. And it also leaves us uncomfortable. Is Letts slumming around, or is he telling us something about ourselves?

With Bug, Letts moves from the trailer park to the motel. The motel room that we're introduced to at the opening is, in fact, a sort of stand in for a diseased mind: Its emptiness is what's striking at the beginning. A young woman, Agnes (Kate McKenna), lives with her lover, RC (Jordan Siegel), while apprehensively awaiting the release of her ex Jerry (Bobby DeAngelo) from prison after serving a deuce for armed robbery. Bug opens with Agnes in her motel room, doing lines and fending off crank calls from her ex. The indifferent opening turns the motel room into a prop that really doesn't come to life. RC is then introduced as her lesbian roommate. At first, the actors seem to be trying on their accents and getting their bearings. The blocking reminds you that they're on a stage, while the motel room fades into the background.

The energy kicks in, however, with the entrance of Peter (Josh Snowden). He's a homeless veteran with a serious case of Gulf War Syndrome. His awkward vibrations head through the room and, despite his gentle disposition, it's clear that there's something burrowing beneath the skin. What makes Snowden's first Baltimore performance so strong is his ability to give meaning to the play's title. His paranoia isn't a sort of inner demon, it's an outside force that has infected him. His somewhat distracted attitude and his occasional twitches give the play its force. When Peter shacks up with Agnes the clock starts ticking. Peter is a little strange from the beginning, but she finds that he's sensitive in a way that her last husband wasn't, learned in due order once Jerry appears. DeAngelo's confident portrayal of Jerry is what makes him one of Baltimore theatre's more convincing thugs. Jerry is an odd but oddly appealing mix of cluelessness and danger.

FPCT takes on a challenge with this one--to say any more about the plot would spoil the ending--and it pays off. Snowden's spot-on portrayal of paranoia sparks a flame that grows as the play progresses. McKenna finds her rhythm as her character gets infected by the bug. And under Barry Feinstein's direction, the dark humor at the core of paranoia gets its full exposure.

After two local productions, a few things about Letts become clearer. He isn't mining these people for laughs, and he can capture the energy of a subculture that has trapped itself. Letts, at least in these plays, was built for the trailer park or the motel room. The energy that comes out of it, at its best, is a blend of paranoia and catharsis that is, on some level, all-American.

But if Letts is a playwright of right now, there's a disturbing nihilism at the core of what he's saying. Sam Shepard--whose A Lie of the Mind recently had a run at Rep Stage--comes to mind as another major American playwright who mines the wild West for white trash archetypes. But Shepherd appears to hunt for their mythological, larger-than-life possibilities. You don't find that in Bug, where Letts, if anything, downsizes his characters as they get buffeted about by forces beyond their control, and their storylines get punctuated by puffs on the crack pipe and senseless killings.

In this intense, well-acted production, you'll probably still leave wondering about Letts himself. Maybe he needs to dig deeper. Or maybe he's telling us something about ourselves that we need to know. Either way, FPCT deserves plenty of credit for giving him a run for his money.

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