If you like your entertainment dark and intense, there are few better local choices for you right now than Raleigh Ensemble Players‘ production of Tracy Letts’ 1996 play Bug. The debut performance of REP’s 2010-2011 season firmly cements the company’s reputation for taking chances and challenging audiences. Watching two wounded lovers spiral down into an abyss of madness and violence may not be every person’s idea of a fine evening at the theater, but for those with a taste for artfully done horror – both psychological and physical – and large splashes of bloody Grand Guignol-style spectacle, Bug is a fascinating treat.

The structure of the play is relatively simple: cocaine-sniffing Agnes (Leanne Norton Heintz) and homeless Gulf War veteran Peter (Jesse Janowsky), two strangers damaged in their own ways, meet and tentatively begin to explore a relationship. Menace arrives in the form of Agnes’ evilly confident ex-husband, played perfectly by Peyton Merrick, but his threatening violence is something of a feint; the real horror comes from Peter, who, we learn with Agnes at the end of Act One, is convinced bugs are crawling over his body. Things go seriously wrong in Act Two.

Letts’ play isn’t perfect – more on that in a moment – but C. Glen Matthews’ staging is very impressive and often brilliant. Except for the opening scene with Agnes alone in her room, which felt a bit aimless on the night I attended, the pacing was sharp, the tender moments given room to expand, and the tension ratcheted up nicely to each of the gasp-inducing moments of shocking violence. Designers Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su deserve credit for so beautifully and realistically transforming the tiny space at the top of the stairs on Fayetteville Street into the claustrophobic, drug-addled motel room inhabited by the lost characters, and for mirroring the frantic psychological descent with an increasingly disheveled set – nicely done from start to finish. One complaint: the bed’s solid headboard is too high and needlessly blocks the row behind it from seeing the actors when they’re lying together.

Janowsky is excellent early on as the fidgety, tentative Peter; it’s easy to overplay nervousness but his control over the character is captivating, making it easy to see why Agnes, already looking for someone to love, would be drawn to Peter’s particular brand of crazy. Heintz does a wonderful job taking Agnes from easily cowed to delusional, each small acquiescence along the way a minor moment of tragedy. Page Purgar does nice work as the relatively grounded lesbian friend, both as comic relief early on and when given more to do in the second act, and John Jimerson convincingly plays the odd role of the alternately threatening and tender Dr. Sweet. Introduced late in the play, Dr. Sweet helps fill out the drama when Peter’s conspiratorial ranting turns him into something of a stock character, someone for whom it’s difficult to feel any emotion.

This is the one major failing of Letts’ writing in Bug; as Peter goes over the top, the character loses most of what made him interesting, replaced with too much of the stereotyped lunatic trapped in a paranoid web. He’s well portrayed by Janowsky, for sure. But a character the audience cares about as the blood starts to pour? Not so sure. The well-realized horror of Agnes’ descent into loving madness helps right the balance as Matthews’ direction speeds things toward their crazed and bloody conclusion.

But after the thrilling shocks subside, and as the appreciation for REP’s excellent execution sets in, it’s easy to wonder if Bug might have been a better play if Letts had focused on giving Peter’s madness more nuance as the play evolves, rather than less.

The show continues through November 20; for details, see our calendar.