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BUG gets under your skin at REP

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One morning, a student came up to me at the beginning of class with a concerned look on her face.

"What should I do about this," she asked, as she showed me a strange mark on her left arm. The skin was red and swollen around an oval, blackish-green bump, about a half-inch in diameter, halfway between her elbow and her wrist. "Something bit me a couple of days ago. A bug or a spider; I didn't see what," she said. A polished fingernail gently pressed against the skin adjacent to the lump. When she did, whatever was beneath the skin shifted.

I recommended she see a doctor immediately. The next session she was back, with a gauze bandage on her arm—and the gory details of exactly what the doctor had to ... remove when she treated the wound.

If you've read these first paragraphs without experiencing nausea or dry mouth, you're probably good to go for the Raleigh Ensemble Players production of BUG. But if that written account made your skin begin to crawl—and you don't find that a particularly pleasurable sensation—you just might want to make other theater plans this weekend.

Sure, theatergoers always claim they want their drama to be visceral. But the strong, instinctive and decidedly physical response to Tracy Letts' creepy-crawly story about the effects that a gradual infestation of bugs has on two characters involved a generous amount of itching and scratching among the audience members, during both the original Chicago production in 1996 and the current Raleigh production.

In part, that's due to the claustrophobic proximity the audience has to designers Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su's pitch-perfect low-rent Oklahoma hotel room in the upstairs studio at 213 Fayetteville St. Under their intentionally dingy lighting, nothing looks that clean to start with in the semi-squalid base of operations of Agnes White, a burned-out cocktail waitress—not the stack of plastic plates tilted atop a sad little microwave oven on an improvised countertop, nor the ceramic rooster napkin holder on a worn table.

The one-room apartment becomes a battlefield during the play's two acts, a place where Agnes attempts first to come to grips with her own loneliness and then the chaos of her past—including a menacing ex-husband just out of the state pen. When a co-worker at the restaurant (Page Purgar's rough-and-ready R.C.) introduces Agnes to Peter, a nice-enough guy who just blew in off the road, we watch actors Leanne Norton Heintz and Jesse Janowsky achingly negotiate their characters' deep-seated insecurities, and equally deep-seated needs, toward one another. The realism of C. Glen Matthews' direction in these scenes left the opening night audience absolutely still.

Eventually, Peter's sensitive façade begins to fragment as he gradually feels comfortable enough to reveal the true depths of his paranoia and, ultimately, psychosis. Peter's Gulf War experiences—and their post-traumatic legacy—have a significant resonance in a time when news reports reveal the extent to which both the military and the Veterans Administration have gone to wrongly categorize, release and then refuse to treat soldiers currently suffering from combat-related stress disorder. And in a day when gleefully disseminated crackpot misinformation and conspiracy theories have warped much of the political discourse, Letts' tale shows us, in graphic terms, the explosive results that occur when two damaged people let their deepest, most irrational fears run unchecked.

Ultimately, BUG reminds us of a lot of things that should give us the creeps. Recommended.

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