Story: Agnes is at low ebb in her life. Her ex-husband Jerry has been released from prison and she fears he will come after her and resume his violent ways. As a result, she’s holed up in a tiny room in a seedy motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. When her friend R.C. drops by, she brings along an acquaintance, a quiet young man named Peter. Despite his reticence, Agnes takes a tentative liking to the stranger, who gradually indicates the feeling is mutual. Knowing only that Peter is on the move for mysterious reasons, she invites him to stay.

As he slowly begins to trust Agnes, Peter informs her that he’s a military veteran who has been the subject of some nasty government experiments. He’s escaped from his guinea pig environment and is desperately searching for a way to eradicate homing devices and other elements that the government is using to track him down. He tells Agnes that he has been injected with microscopic, deadly aphids that are literally sucking his blood. Since Agnes has lived with the terror of her missing 6-year-old son disappearing at a grocery store a decade earlier, she has her reasons for believing in conspiracies and becomes increasingly absorbed into Peter’s troubled world. Is Peter a madman or a terribly wronged victim?

Highlights: Muddy Waters Theatre each season devotes its schedule to the works of one playwright in an effort to explore that writer’s style and philosophy. The company is dedicating its 2012 season to Chicago-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, opening with its current production of his psychological thriller, Bug.

Written in the superior tradition of the cult TV series, The X Files, Bug takes an audience to the brink of madness while dropping enough bizarre and unexplained hints to leave sufficient room for doubt. Muddy Waters’ artistic managing director Cameron Ulrich expertly builds momentum and tension in this crackling, two-act suspense tale that weaves considerable nudity and violence throughout its story of chaos and confusion with the notable assistance of a well-honed cast and crew with their own taste for the macabre.

Other Info: Ulrich’s Bug scurries along on two mesmerizing performances by Kirsten Wylder and Justin Ivan Brown that propel the tale towards its inevitable conclusion. Wylder continues to impress with the broad array of her talents, from fitfully funny comedic roles to heavy dramatic parts. Her interpretation of the despondent waitress Agnes is certainly among her best performances. She expertly depicts the lonely Agnes mired in a life of booze, drugs and unrelenting depression, a woman clinging to any relevant meaning she can find in her life. Her scenes with Brown as the mysterious Peter palpitate with an urgent need for connection, and his disturbing demeanor meets her criteria.

Brown is totally absorbing as the young man labeled psychotic by the military. He wonderfully reflects the paranoia and obsession of Peter with a beautifully nuanced portrayal, highlighted by a horrific scene when he extracts his own tooth to uncover evidence of the aphid conspiracy that will have you averting your eyes from the stage.

There’s also compelling supporting work by Jared Sanz-Agero as Agnes’ brutish and venial ex-husband, prone to sudden spurts of violence, and Jenn Bock as her lesbian friend R.C., who learns to regret bringing Peter into her friend’s solitary life. Andrew Kuhlman adds a brief but significant touch as a stranger named Dr. Sweet who shows up at Agnes’ room, allegedly a psychiatrist searching for his missing and deeply disturbed schizophrenic patient.

Mark Wilson’s moody set design finely establishes the seedy, forlorn appearance of a second-rate motel room with some later additions of tin foil draped over windows, doors and lamps as Peter attempts to ‘block’ unwanted communications to and from the outside. David Hahn’s lighting enhances the surreal appearance and Milton Zoth’s sound design provides plenty of disturbing background noise, from the honky-tonk tunes on a radio to the ominous beating of helicopter wings above. Ellen Minch’s costumes underscore the economic and intellectual harshness of the characters.

Be forewarned that Bug contains substantial nudity and violence, as well as enough plot uncertainties to keep The X Files’ redoubtable FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder going full tilt against any would-be conspirators. For me, that’s the highest praise, indeed.

Play: Bug

Group: Muddy Waters Theatre

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Grand at Olive

Dates: March 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25

Tickets: $20-$25; contact 971-3143, or

Rating:  A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5

Photos courtesy of John Lamb