On the John: How time travel works

On the John

How time travel works: exploring ideas in Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram

Originally completed August 25, 2010

Kate Arrington and Marylouise Burke as Young Bee and Old Bee in Bruce Norris's A Parallelogram (photos from the play by Mark Campbell)

So you’re eight-years-old, and you’re at the grocery store, and you’re in the cereal aisle hoping that just once, your mother won’t notice that you’ve slipped a box of Lucky Charms into the cart, and that she won’t notice when the cart’s contents are placed upon the check-out counter, nor when the box of Lucky Charms is rung up and the receipt reads “Lucky Charms.” As always, she notices. “Not so fast, buster,” she says with a laugh you find degrading. “You know the rules. Honey Nut Cheerios is sweet enough.”

And you promise yourself that when you have kids, they’ll be allowed to eat whatever they please. Especially sugar cereals. Especially Lucky Charms.

Twenty years later you’re doing your damnedest to start each day with low fat organic yogurt. Mickey D’s has been cut clean from your diet. You never super-size. You drink less pop. Sometimes you choose a turkey sandwich instead of fried chicken. One day, you find yourself back in the cereal aisle, and as you reach for a box of Kashi Go Lean Honey & Cinnamon, that pledge from twenty years earlier makes its way through the timeline and hits you, pleads with you, says “No, it can’t be true, I can’t turn into this, I just can’t,” and you laugh and respond, “Just wait till you’re my age.”

Or, okay, how about this:

You’re 17, and your first love has just become your first heartbreak. She dumps you the Friday before Spring Break. Says, “It wasn’t working anyways.” Two years later you’re a swinging college freshman, and you can’t believe you let that girl dampen your high school experience. “Man,” you think between shots, “if only I could go back in time and tell myself what she was up to, what she was going to do. I spent Spring Break sulking!”

Four years later you’ve got your first real job, your first real relationship. No, no, you know what I mean: it’s a real relationship. We have a place together. You come home one day and she’s not there. Strange, because it’s date night and she needs to get dressed. You call her cell. Straight to voicemail. You’re worried. Then your phone rings. “I’ll be home soon,” she says. “We should talk.” She tells you she’s leaving, that she’s “met someone.” Eight months later you’re reading a collection of poems by Ezra Pound at a street-side café in Italy, your first European excursion, and you’re thinking, “Why didn’t I do this years ago? That relationship, that’s why. If I could go back right now, tell myself what happens, tell myself it doesn’t work out and that Europe is so much better anyhow. Damn, I could have saved so much time…”

As you’re thinking this, thinking it right on over to yourself from a year earlier, you can actually hear your own response! “I appreciate the advice,” says the voice. “And I know you’re me from the future. And I know I wished like hell I could have prepared 17-year-old me, but this is different. We have a strong relationship…”

“Ah well.” You order another glass of red and admire the Italian sky. “He’ll learn.”

Steppenwolf veteran Tom Irwin is dynamic as Bee's boyfriend Jay.

But then – and here’s where things get wild – as you lift the glass to your lips you hear another little voice: “You blew it. You overdid it. It’s just love. And you came out here, and you set your career aside, and you bummed around Europe until you didn’t feel like returning, so when you returned you’d lost the habit of hard work. You never returned to school, never returned to your career, never got married, never gave up drinking… you just slowed down and slowed down and never sped up.”

You pause. You can hear him. He sounds sincere. He sounds legitimate. You know who he is. You know that he knows.

You smile. Confident. And in Italy, for goodness sake! “Bartender, one more.”


There is plenty to unpack in Bruce Norris’s delightful play A Parallelogram (at Steppenwolf through August 29), but most urgent is the discussion surrounding the mysterious “Old Bee.”

The play consists of four characters, two of which are incarnations of a woman named Bee. The younger Bee is in her early-30s, is dating the divorced, mid-40s Jay, and is at the center of the narrative action. The older Bee is in her 70s, and spends the duration of Act One interacting with Young Bee from her stage left nook. YB claims to have met OB earlier in the day at the supermarket under mystical circumstances, the older woman telling the younger one about The Future in general and her future in particular.

Like fiction’s best apparitional guides, Old Bee controls who can see and hear her, and because neither boyfriend Jay nor groundskeeper J.J. are granted that privilege, the audience is encouraged to wonder about the play’s reality. In both post-show discussions I have observed, and in most of the reviews I have read, the question of that reality sits smack at the core. Is Old Bee real? Or is Young Bee losing her sanity?

But from the first moment I saw OB and YB interact (about six minutes into the play), I was hooked on a different reality:

A Parallelogram is the story of an old woman sitting alone at night, in her bedroom, where she smokes, plays Solitaire, eats Oreos, and watches television, only on this night, nearer to death than she has ever been, she wonders if she did it wrong. Life. The big questions. She has grown into an easily contented, “I just don’t give a shit” person, and now she wonders if that lifestyle was wrong, if she should have done better, if she even could have done better. She pines for the ability to go back in time, to grant herself knowledge of the future. To change her course.

If I told you about 9/11 six months before it happened, could you do anything to stop it?

She wonders, “At which point did my life drift away from where I wished to take it?” She searches for that one key decision that dictated her direction more than the others. She settles upon her very early 30’s, just after my hysterectomy, just after Jay and I got back from vacation, just after Poncho died. It was foolish to begin an affair with a married man, but we were happy. Yeah… coming home from that trip… that was the swing. Life changed and I pretended it hadn’t, and that sucked me away.

And then she realizes: “Wait a second. I was stubborn as all hell back then! I couldn’t take advice from my parents. Not from my friends. Not from Jay. Not from doctors. Not from myself. What makes me think I would listen to some old woman, even if it was me?”

She pauses, an Oreo in mid-air. “Let’s say I would listen, though. What good would that do? I can tell her what happens in the world, but if someone alerted me of 9/11 in the summer of 2001, could I stop it? Running around telling people? And that’s how it would have to be, since I would have no Youtube, no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhones… (were there blogs then?)… Okay, okay, so let’s say I did somehow make such a big deal about 9/11 that our country entered September 2001 with bated breath, just as we did when the clock ticked toward Y2K. The terrorists or the government or the aliens or whoever committed the attacks would change the date, and then I would look crazy, and then, once people settled down, then they would attack, and the net result would be the same carnage, damage, and tragedy, plus one more crazy person.

“So I can’t affect change by alerting her to disasters. At least I can give her some advice about her own life.”

She takes another bite of Oreo, flips the channels – “But that’s sort of pointless too. Let’s say I could convince her to break up with Jay. She would then go with the next guy, equally wrong for different reasons, and I would still end up here because it wasn’t about Jay or that one choice. It was about me, the person I was, the person I am.” She sighs. She imagines the progression of events: the initial act of introduction, her younger self’s skepticism, belief, inability to change much beyond immediate events, the whole deal ending in either insanity or resignation. She sighs again: “Still would have ended up here.” She takes another Oreo, another drag, and changes the channel. “Fuck it. Five minutes until Top Chef.”

And that’s A Parallelogram right there.

And that’s life right there.

Tim Bickel (right) was terrific as J.J. in his first Steppenwolf show.

Because really, what can you do? You have a responsibility to better yourself, to embrace hard work and integrity in action, and you do it… but at the same time, you kind of just change as you change and grow as you grow. And so much random shit befalls you anyhow that it’s easy to get blown off course, or, hell, to never even see it.

I mean, I’ve been trying to get into morning sit-ups and push-ups since I was 14-years-old. Every six months I can get into an intensely disciplined period that lasts for about ten weeks before tapering out. I’m 28. This has been happening half my life. I give myself points for the effort and the twice-annual success, and while I might one day master the every-morning schedule, it is just as likely that I am not an exercise person, and that in the area of physical fitness, I will always reset to a state of idle satisfaction.

What A Parallelogram suggests in several ways – and a few key ones I will not mention here – is the idea that life is like a book. It has a start point and an end point. It unfolds in present tense. It is real while it happens. The characters cannot change the story, but that’s no big deal since they can’t even see the story.

This is the reason you can open your favorite novel to any page and immediately be sunk deep into your accompanying emotions. It is the reason that the Golden Country passages of 1984 (perhaps my favorite novel) feel so sweet and hopeful even when we know in our brains what will eventually happen to Winston and Julia.

Grab the nearest novel. Take it in your hands. Hold it. See? It’s all there. The very first sentence and the very last. It is you, the reader, determining the book’s forward action, and right now, in this settled state, the book unopened and waiting, every event is both completed and soon to begin. Yes, the reader could read individual words out of sequence and at random, but then all meaning would be lost and books would have no purpose.

It’s funny: just as I occasionally have desires to go back in time and alert 17-year-old Jack or 23-year-old Jack to a certain event, I also wish to plop myself into the Golden Country during their happiest of times and tell Winston and Julia how it’s going to go down.

But that wouldn’t save them. For one, they’d never believe me, because that would mean denying the moment they are enjoying right here right now as false and hopeless.

Everyone knows what's in Room 101...

Two, even if they did believe me, O’Brien would still succeed. My warning might lead them to make small adjustments… They would move out of Mr. Charrington’s attic, and they would not go to O’Brien’s to receive The Book. I suppose that would buy them another year of freedom and happiness.

Eventually, though, Big Brother and O’Brien would capture them. They’ve got that place wired… It’s only a matter of time…

There’s a great moment in Norris’s play when one character denies Young Bee’s “future readings” by yelling, “My wife is not going to die of leukemia!” It’s a remarkable scene: regardless of whether Young Bee has or has not been given accurate information about the future, the desperation in this man’s statement is a terrific character reveal. He is telling Bee that she does not know what the future holds, and yet his assumption is that he somehow does, the assumption of most humans that Terrible Events are not in our future. My wife is not going to die of leukemia. Come on Bee. You know this.

That’s what makes those Golden Country passages so heartbreakingly pure: in our minds, somewhere, even as first-time readers, we know that doom awaits them, and so we enjoy those moments just as much as Winston and Julia. More even, since we are privy to an absolute sense of time. We enjoy re-reading those pages, re-living those scenes, because we know that very soon, we will be in the Ministry of Truth holding cell, and then O’Brien’s interrogation, and then Room 101…

And I think this is what they mean when they say, “Live in the moment.” You must enjoy the good times. You know why? BECAUSE THEY’RE THE FUCKING GOOD TIMES! That’s why they call them the good times. And when you’re in the bad times, what more can you do other than laugh and say, “Remember those good times we had?”

Say it again, Jimmy V.

That might be A Parallelogram’s greatest triumph: it’s a good fucking time! The show easily could have been too preachy, or too depressing, or too tragic, or too uplifting – but no. It’s funny. A deep, sustaining laughter that grows from the characters. From their motivations and ambitions and prejudices and insecurities. Ask people who have seen the show about their experience, and I bet you hear something like: “It made me think. It made me laugh. Yeah, ya know… It was a good time!”

Or, as Jim Valvano once stated: “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

And that’s my speech.

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

Unnamed photo credits:



Jim Valvano


2 Replies to “On the John: How time travel works”

  1. Great review Jack. That does like a pretty kick ass play, even if it makes my head a bit hurt-y, and the stubborn bitch in me say, “I would still try and go back to make the changes that could possibly matter.” Hopefully someday I will reach that level of Zen and stop wishing I could alter the past.

  2. This is 60 years and six weeks-old Winston’s Dad looking through crossed-lines back to the time he saw Norris’ play at Steppenwolf several weeks ago. Winston’s Dad, Sr. now knows what the play was about after reading Jack’s mesmerizing review and thoughts about the production. But Sr. has no desire to tell Winston Dad, Jr. ( a week or two younger when he saw the play) what the play is really about as that would color Jr.’s perception of the theatrical experience. In other words, Jr. would see a different play than the one he saw a few weeks ago. And that play was terrific. So was Jack’s ruminations about the entire meaning of the Norris play. That play was funny, thought-provoking and the Stoppardian witty dialog rivaled– at least for me– language spoken by Preston Sturges characters and even some Shakespeare characters as well. In brief, nice job Jack.

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