Woman in cut-off denim shorts and purple sleeveless top sitting on unmade bed, looking at man in chair on the right in messy motel room
Carrie Coon and Namir Smallwood in Bug at Steppenwolf Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

There was only one weekend left in Steppenwolf’s original production run of Bug when the theater announced it would be closing its doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020.

Twenty months later, the company has launched its “comeback” season with a second, complete revival run (once again directed by David Cromer) of Tracy Letts’s play, starring ensemble members Randall Arney, Carrie Coon, and Namir Smallwood alongside Jennifer Engstrom and Steve Key, who are all reprising their roles. 

The sustainable prevalence of Bug’s central themes—loneliness and love, paranoia and drug use, class and conspiracy—have maintained the production’s cult classic status since the play first premiered in London in 1996. A young drifter named Peter (Smallwood), a homeless veteran of the first Gulf War, finds unlikely but welcome respite—however short-lived—with Agnes (Coon). Agnes, a divorcee 17 years Peter’s senior, is living in a motel room, working as a waitress, and generally trying to avoid her abusive ex-husband, Goss (Key). 

Agnes and Peter are both intensely independent people, more inclined to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-soothe rather than risk the chance of relying on someone else, only to be let down. 

But after just one night together, Peter’s neuroses and paranoias are made apparent when the bleeps of a battery-operated smoke detector, low on juice, manifests into a full-on hunt for bugs that Peter believes have been “planted” as part of a surveillance initiative by the government, which Peter has distrusted ever since his days in the military. 

Bug
Through 12/12: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 8 PM; also Wed 12/1-12/8, 2:30 PM; 3 PM only Sun 12/12; no shows Wed-Thu 11/24-11/25, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$110.

I reviewed Steppenwolf’s original production of Bug for the Chicago Reader in February of 2020, and while COVID was already on our collective radar, it hadn’t yet infected our lives to the degree that it inevitably would (and still does). While the corollary between invisible bugs and an “invisible virus” now hits very close to home, the idea of infection—that of the body, sure, but also the heart and mind—is evergreen.

Twenty-five years after its initial release, the enduring relevance of Bug’s themes, with or without the context of a worldwide pandemic, show that the everyday malaise of living hasn’t changed much. When I first saw Bug nearly two years ago, the then-president was one of the most ardent government conspiracy theorists of all and the country was in the throes of an ongoing and worsening opioid epidemic—the elasticity of reality and the fragility of life seemed stretchier and sketchier with each passing day. As I left the theater that night, results of the Iowa caucus were being contested as claims of election hacks and digital interference began to circulate. That seems so long ago, but it really wasn’t.

Bug takes place entirely within Agnes’s hotel room, designed perfectly by Takeshi Kata once again. What struck me most as I watched Bug: Round 2 was the concept of self-imposed quarantine, which is essentially what Agnes and Peter partake in by never leaving the hotel room. In February 2020, I wouldn’t have had the vernacular to even call it that, and then we all had to quarantine just one month later. 

While quarantining in COVID was a selfless act meant to protect ourselves and each other, it also exacerbated the underlying issues that make Bug so topical: there were more than 100,000 deaths by overdose over the course of the last year, a majority of which involved fentanyl, and not only are there conspiracy theories abounding like never before, there have been actual QAnon sympathizers elected to Congress. 

Bug still gets under the skin because it has become increasingly realistic.