The wallpaper is still drying on the “cheap furnished room” set at A Red Orchid Theatre. The space is a construction zone, with scraps of drywall, chunks of lumber, a handheld power saw, a hammer, and many screwdrivers scattered about. Toward the back of the theater a phone rings, and Michael Shannon leaps up from a metal folding chair to answer it. After a brief conversation, he comes back to the stage and reports, “I just took the first reservation for the show.”

It’s mid-July, and the company’s production of Bug, written by Killer Joe author Tracy Letts, doesn’t open for another month. Shannon’s in a good humor, despite having spent the wee hours of the morning in a public park memorizing his part as a mentally disturbed Oklahoma drifter named Peter, and despite knowing that his commitment to the six-week production will temporarily eliminate chances for more lucrative film roles. For Bug, which promises little or no pay, he’s even helped build the set.

Shannon, 27, most recently appeared in several scenes with Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin in Pearl Harbor. He got to ad-lib most of his lines at the request of director Michael Bay, but he also spent a lot of time waiting around.

“I think the time I spent in LA I got confused,” says Shannon. “On one hand I was having success, being involved with big pictures, but I sensed myself getting smaller as an actor, not doing anything stimulating. I had to do this before going on.”

Shannon also plays a prison guard in Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise, and makes a cameo appearance with Morgan Freeman in High Crimes, both due out this fall. Earlier this summer he returned from Australia, where, in his biggest film role to date, he played Frankie the Vermin in David McNally’s Down and Under, scheduled for release next spring.

A lanky six foot four, with an outsize jaw and bushy, dishwater blond hair, Shannon has an easy time unsettling people. “My face tends to look angry and perturbed,” he says, “even when I’m in a relaxed state.”

Except for Pearl Harbor and a bit part as a boy on a prom date in Groundhog Day (1993), Shannon has tended toward over-the-edge characters. He played a nonchalant and deranged backwoods killer in Jesus’ Son (1999) and a frighteningly unpredictable crackhead in Chicago Cab (1998). As the sadistic Sergeant Filmore in Tigerland (2000), he demonstrated to young enlisted men the process of shocking a man’s testicles with wires connected to a field radio. His role in Bug is the latest in this lineup.

“There’s definitely something visceral and gripping about his presence, which makes him strong in this role,” says Dexter Bullard, Bug’s director. Bullard’s known Shannon since directing him in Fun and Nobody at the Next Lab in Evanston. The 16-year-old Shannon played an angry youth. “Michael was so new, no one knew where he came from. Nobody knew anything about his working method, but he just blew everybody away.” For that role–his second in a Chicago-area theater–Shannon received a Joseph Jefferson Citation for theatrical excellence.

Like the gulf war veteran he plays in Bug, Shannon has been a bit of a drifter. At 13 he moved away from his mother and three siblings in Lexington, Kentucky, to live with his father, Don Shannon, an accountancy professor at DePaul University. He lived in Wilmette for two years, was shuffled back to Lexington for a year, then moved to Chicago. Despite film success that has brought him a six-figure income, he currently has no permanent residence and, in Chicago, stays with friends and relatives.

Film and theater work–including the London and New York productions of Killer Joe–has taken him around the globe, but he now claims Chicago as his home. His favorite film experience was working with other local actors on Chicago Cab, which originated as the long-running stage production Hellcab. “That’s because it was about community,” he says, “this group of actors trying to do something for Chicago.”

Shannon’s voice is slightly husky and offstage his speech eases toward casual profanity–“If I wouldn’t have gotten that part [Fun and Nobody], I would have gotten dejected, fuckin’ quit. As it was, it turned out to be a huge success.” At other times, disregarding the scratchiness and tough talk, he sounds refined, like a young Orson Welles: “Every day when I’m walking around, I’m constantly collecting ammunition, energy. You soak it up. It’s ambient energy. It’s a mystical thing. If it were easier to do, it would be easier to explain.”

“I’d like to see you again” is the most important line in Bug, says Shannon. It’s the moment in the play when his troubled character reaches out to a lonely middle-aged waitress, played by Kate Buddeke. The line is preceded by a weighty silence, a moment of intentional hesitation and windup that builds to a declaration far more serious than the statement suggests.

Shannon and Bullard are secretive about other details of the plot, but what they do reveal is that it will contain insects, fake or otherwise, as the name suggests.

Bug previews Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. It opens Monday at 8 and runs Thursdays through Sundays until September 30. Tickets range from $12.50 to $16.50; call 312-943-8722 for reservations and information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.