By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Sep 13, 2015 at 9:16 AM

It’s a rare moment when the first sound of a cricket can herald a passionate and directed descent into a chilling madness with one victim leading the other into a complex version of hell.

But that’s what happens in the distinguished production of Tracy Letts' "Bug," which opened this weekend at Splinter Group under the direction of Jim Farrell.

That cricket is the spark that takes Agnes and Peter to places nobody ever thought even existed.

Agnes (Niffer Clarke) is a middle aged divorcee, living her life in a seedy Oklahoma motel and fearful of her ex-husband Goss (Rick Pendzich) who has just gotten out of two years in prison for armed robbery.

Her only ally in life is R.C. (Sara Zientek), a lesbian bartender who is the rock in the stormy seas of Agnes’ life. And R. C. brings the conductor of this train to nowhere, Peter (Max Williamson) into the motel room and into Agnes’ world.

Agnes is lonely. She is a lost sailboat without any rudder. She wants someone to like her, to show her some respect. Self esteem and Agnes live in different Oklahoma counties.

Suddenly there is Peter. Half her age, tall and taciturn. He is awkward around her, but he likes her. A lot. It’s been years since Peter has been with a woman, and there is a sense of being flattered when he confesses that to her.

But he is a man of mystery.

‘I don’t know why I love you," she says after their relationship has caught a rhythm. "I don’t know anything about you."

We know that phrase is just a wisp of a willow as it’s clear that Letts is going to let her, and us, know everything about him.

And it starts with the cricket.

In bed together, Peter hears the sound of the cricket. He slaps his arm and his head and his back. "Aphids," he tells Agnes. And they search for the offending sound the the cricket, stripping bed linen until they finally notice it is a battery-dead smoke alarm.

Not to worry as Peter’s obsessive fear of the bugs begins to slowly take over their relationship and their lives.

Peter’s secret is wrapped in a cocoon of government spies and testing programs and human manipulation that this world has seen, in one degree or another, far too often. Peter is on the run from the very people who he says infected him with an egg sac of poisonous aphids by putting it into the cavity of a tooth he had replaced.

Agnes is a willing mate as Peter both describes and diagnoses the vicious bugs that surround both of them. Step by step, their world shuts out everything except for the military-like battle plan to keep the evil of the bugs at bay.

Sitting in the audience, I struggled to figure out why all of this was happening, and it wasn’t until I caught on that this was what it was like to watch someone go absolutely mad that I was comfortable.

Comfort, however, is not exactly one of the hallmarks of this production. It is unsettling in its violence. It is perplexing in its shame. And it is maddening in its madness.

This is a tough play, and it takes a tough approach to pull it off. Let’s start with the direction.

Farrell shows once again that has all the chops needed to deal with this kind of a play. In lesser hands, this play can fall into a kind of pathetic poem that leaves you cold. But Farrell understood that the pace of this play is like any great fairy tale. It starts gently, funny and slow. And the beat continues, relentlessly until the heroic ending. This production could easily have been filled with the kind of director cool that calls for long periods of silence broken up by a few words, but that would have been a serious disservice to the text.

Both Pendzich, who wears his menace like a matador, and Zientek, who swashbuckles through Agnes’ life, are brilliant performers who stand this play well.

It is Clarke and Williamson upon whom this show sinks or swims and they each deliver resounding performances.

Williamson has found the perfect posture for Peter. In the early part of their relationship, he is quiet, and awkward. He interrupts sentences and he swallows his words letting us in on the secret that there is something there, but not giving us any hints about how to get it out. He is no starstruck lover, but a man hiding from a past, present and future in this seedy motel room.

Clarke, who has long been at the top of my list for Milwaukee actors, is magnetic in her Agnes. She is lonely and frightened and takes her medicine in cocaine and vodka. Clarke lets us see that even as she wilts after being hit by Goss, that her longing is going to lead her somewhere.

Clarke is a bundle of nerves and questions and can’t find a calm nor can she find answers.

Her closing soliloquy is as demanding and frightening as any I’ve seen. I sat there, watching this lady go from one crazy ledge to another even more absurd and found myself seeing the logic in this painful journey. Letts throws down a gauntlet and gives Agnes the words.

Clarke picks it up and breathes the magic to make the words sparkle, mystify and explode.

"Bug" runs through Sept. 20 and information on showtimes and tickets can be found here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.