The Blue Barn calls the play Bug “a psycho thriller,” and others have called it “every bit as sleazy and violent” as Killer Joe, another intense drama by Tracy Letts.
One source warned against “violence, nudity and cigarette smoke,” while another said, “Don’t bring anyone who likes clean escape entertainment” to this “blood-drenched thriller.” And 24 hours before it was to open off-Broadway, Amanda Plummer abandoned the lead role over “artistic differences.”
All of which makes it very likely that director Susan Clement-Toberer and her Blue Barn cast will turn it into a powerful, memorable experience that will lift it well above the sordid stuff suggested by those comments. “I’ve been wanting to do this show since I saw it off Broadway but the right blend of cast was not around,” she says.
(It barely broke even when it ran for 11 months, then became a movie with Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. in 2006.)
She has college classmate Kim Gambino, in the lead as Agnes, “the lonely waitress with a tragic past,” and Brian Zealand in his Barn debut as Peter the paranoid drifter. Kevin Barratt plays her nasty ex-hubby, with Erika Zadina as R.C., her lesbian biker buddy, and Nick Zadina as Dr. Sweet.
Clement-Toberer looks at Letts’ controversial story as fitting the Barn’s goal of being “highly challenged, a little afraid to approach the script.” She describes it as “very well-written,” and suggests that one of the playwrights’ genius traits, the ability to bring intensity to the stage, is balanced by levity, “his clever ways of relieving the audience” of the intensity.
Gambino agrees. She is an Equity actor who shared four years of shows with the director when they were classmates at the State University of New York in Purchase. But she also shares my notion that any synopsis makes the story sound at least formidable and like a real downer. “I was thinking of that, too … a crackhead waitress on a crack binge for days and pretty much losing her mind.”
But it’s saved by superb writing and performance. “You immediately feel for my character and the others,” she adds. And, her director says, “It certainly will provoke thought and emotion.”
Susan and Kim reject one critic’s claim that the play’s nudity is “in your face.” In the director’s eye “It’s not anything distasteful; both times are well-warranted to propel the story.”
“It’s certainly not a sex scene when Agnes and Peter jump out of bed looking for the bugs that are biting them.” She’s not new to performing nude, having toured Europe for eight months with the musical Hair.
But the role remains a stretch for her. “I don’t smoke crack; I have one glass of wine and I’m done.” She’s a single mom whose hopes of coming to Omaha to work with Susan were inhibited by the baby’s early years. “Now he’s 12, a pre-teen getting pretty sick of me,” and spending the Omaha rehearsal time with his dad before coming here for a week.
The title bugs turn the play’s sleazy motel into a roach motel, one observer said. The paranoid Peter also imagines other bugs, such as computer chips he claims the government implants in people’s brains. He believes the Rev. Jim Jones, who led his cult to drink lethal Kool-Aid in Africa, was actually assassinated when he discovered the computer chip conspiracy.
Agnes and Peter battle the bugs by hanging strips of flypaper, prompting her ex-convict former husband to quip, “Y’know, if I was a roach, I believe I’d take the hint.”
The Blue Barn, which added a full-time fund raiser earlier this year, has hired local Equity actors such as Jerry Longe in the past, but Clement-Toberer sees Gambino’s casting “as the start of our really actively committing to a professional wing.”
And Kim Gambino, who appeared here in the Hal France music festival a few years ago, raises the stakes even higher. “Were hoping this is the beginning of bringing people here from all over the world.” She’s convinced Omaha has “the incredible talent” to make that happen.
Bug runs Sept. 29-Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays Oct. 9, 16 and 23 at the Blue Barn, 614 S. 11th St.. Tickets are $25, $20 students, seniors and groups. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.