Trapped Inside A Parallelogram

Steppenwolf’s latest play questions the nature of belief with a time traveling dose of science fiction.

By Ben Sigrist

Although fictional stories have produced several thought experiments concerning time travel, there is one nearly universal axiom that persists throughout the countless iterations: The fabric of time is delicate and even small alterations to the past can have catastrophic consequences for the future. Whether the past can be altered is one issue, but the compulsion to alter the course of history—or even to understand it a little better—remains a common motivation for legions of time travelers. Such hubris is denied and censured in A Parallelogram. Time travel is the central conceit of the play (and maybe of one of the characters), but the time traveler here has no desire to relive the past or gain perspective. She approaches her past self as an insipid tormenter, an agent of fate, who is just there to remind everyone that the individual is essentially powerless, especially when confronting the obscure machinations of fate.

At the beginning of the play the time traveller, Bee (Marylouise Burke), sits quietly in a corner, deceptively innocuous, watching a scene from her past during which a younger Bee (Kate Arrington) and her then boyfriend Jay (Tom Irwin) struggle through a rough patch in their relationship. Bee is experiencing vague psychological trauma due to her recent hysterectomy and another unpleasant, only-hinted-at experience that ruined a recent vacation for her and Jay. But she isn't the only functioning neurotic of the household—Jay's reaction to the whole situation betrays his own insecurities. He asks her, “Why do I always play the bad guy” (a bit of an in-joke because Irwin played the Devil in Steppenwolf's production of The Seafarer), while peculiarly unaware of the old woman sitting in the corner of the room.

After Jay leaves the room for a phone call, the younger Bee suddenly turns to the old woman, the older Bee, and starts asking all kinds of questions about the future. Will I be alone? Why do I smoke? Am I staying together with Jay? Will I be happy? Each question is met with a more dismissive and nonchalant response from the older Bee, who seems perfectly disinterested in these trivial preoccupations. Burke has nearly mastered a halting, hesitant cadence for this role so that the older Bee appears aloof, innocent, and frightfully uncaring. In fact, she gets too immersed in this impassive demeanor at certain moments in which she drops or flubs lines that are crucial for the tone of the older Bee's hilarious monologues, including a show-stopping speech explaining why senior citizens “just don't give a shit” about anything.

These proclamations from the future Bee set the predominant tone of a play about the insignificance of individual action in the grand scheme of things. The younger Bee is the only person who is aware of her older self's true identity, although the time traveller does appear disguised as an oncologist or a Mexican grandmother to other characters. The professed purpose of the older Bee's visit to the past is to warn the younger Bee about a disease that will kill most of the world's population. But even the older Bee admits that her warning is mostly unhelpful because nothing her past self can do will change things significantly, and even if she could do something to prevent the looming catastrophe it wouldn't necessarily be preferable. The world isn't such a bad place with half of its population wiped out according to the older Bee. “You never have to look for a parking spot,” she cheerfully relates.

To illustrate this point, the older Bee gives her younger self the scientifically magical remote that allows for time travel so that she can rewind time and see for herself how little control she has over the course of events. The younger Bee uses the remote to replay certain exchanges with Jay, and while it is uncertain whether the alterations of her behavior in these replay conversations are significant, her faith in her own autonomy is clearly shaken. The repeat sequences are perfectly executed by Irwin, and you would be hard-pressed to find differences in the subsequent deliveries of his lines. In general, the complications of the time-travel conceit are presented excellently, and the deceptively simple set of a drab middle-class bedroom conceals stunning technical capabilities.

But the theoretical problems elicited by time travel are not really the central issue of the play. It is eventually suggested that Bee might be insane, either due to the proliferation of the cancer believed to be defeated by the hysterectomy or due to no good reason whatsoever, and hallucinating the whole time travel experience, future self included. But this dilemma isn't really the issue either. Appropriate for the theme of Steppenwolf's latest season, Belief, a crushing sense of defeatism takes precedence in the unfolding story. Whether the older Bee is a time traveller or a phantom of the mind, her one motivation is to convince her younger self that she is powerless. The boundary between the identities of the two Bees is surprisingly blurry, and the younger Bee often gives in to an all-consuming hopelessness.

Taken with the play's allusions to real-world current events—the future pandemic, which might as well have been called Bird Flu outright, is a zoological disease transmitted to humanity from birds—this helplessness could be a response to the multitudinous threats from within and without that the average person cannot help but be aware of. With terrorism, economic collapse, socialism, and diseases like Bird Flu and AIDs enacting a pageant of global devastation in the mass media, it's hard not to find something to be scared about. These modern horsemen of the Apocalypse certainly make you and I look small and make it difficult to believe that anyone can make much of a difference. But belief is a personal thing, and, as the play concludes, people left to their own devices can convince themselves of just about anything.