‘Bug’ creeps into the S.F. Playhouse

Tracy Letts couldn’t be hotter right now. The Chicago-based playwright, acclaimed for theater works including “Killer Joe” and “Man from Nebraska,” recently won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his drama, “August: Osage County.”

In the Bay Area, though, Letts is still relatively unknown — which makes the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of “Bug” a great opportunity for theater lovers. The play, which has been produced to rave reviews in London, Chicago and New York, made its long overdue San Francisco opening last weekend at the company’s intimate Sutter Street venue.

“Bug,” written in 1996, was one of Letts’ first hits. But Jon Tracy, who is directing, says it’s a quintessential example of the playwright’s style. The script interweaves love, paranoia and government conspiracy theories in a darkly compelling drama.

Set in a motel room outside Oklahoma City, the plot revolves around Agnes, a waitress on the run from her violent ex-husband, and Peter, a drifter who may be a Gulf War veteran gone AWOL.

It is a psycho-thriller, director Tracy says, but one with surprising depth.

“‘Bug’ has the trappings of a very dark, Sam Shepard kind of play,” says Tracy, who previously directed “First Person Shooter” and “The Man of La Mancha” for the company. “But under those trappings is a really deep love story. It’s through that lens that Letts looks at human instinct — what will we do for love? For identity? And what happens if we find hope after we’ve given up?”

The new production features S.F. Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano as Agnes and Gabe Marin as Peter. Zehra Berkman, Keith Burkland and John Flannagan round out the cast in supporting roles.

With its references to war and conspiracy theories, Tracy and his cast are finding that “Bug” is still timely. But the director says the play isn’t overtly political.

"Part of the beauty of the play is its ambiguity,” he says. “It’s not a pro- or anti-government piece. Our job is to drive the through line and let the audience decide.”

Letts, an ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, is an actor as well as a director. But he’s earned his greatest kudos as a theater writer with plays such as “Killer Joe” and “Man from Nebraska,” which was named one of the top 10 plays of 2003 by Time Magazine.

“Bug,” which made its world premiere in 1996 at London’s Gate Theatre, had a successful American premiere at Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre, followed by an 11-month run off-Broadway. In its review of the play, the Hollywood Reporter called Letts “a significant playwrighting talent.”

Tracy, who first saw the playwright’s work in a production of “Killer Joe” in Marin a few seasons back, agrees. “Letts is amazing,” says the director. “He has a precise way of using language that has its own sense of poetry. It isn’t flowery, but it has a beautiful precision. He can open up doors with three words.”

IF YOU GO

Bug

Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., S.F

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes June 14

Tickets: $38

Contact: (415) 677-9596; www.ticketweb.com

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