I wouldn’t describe Gloria: A Life, currently playing the Daryl Roth Theatre, as a conventional play, but then again, there’s absolutely nothing about the life of Gloria Steinem that’s conventional. Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life is as thought-provoking, educational, inspirational and surprising as is Ms. Steinem herself. Although I occasionally questioned Ms. Mann’s style, her subject was so compelling, I was rapt, riveted.
Gloria: A Life is mostly a monologue by Gloria Steinem (Christine Lahti) talking directly to the audience about how her life as a journalist and feminist organizer unfolded. The stage is in the round and the floor is covered with rich oriental rugs. There are a few ottomans with books stacked beside them scattered around. It’s an open, bare space but very cozy because of the rich colors in the rugs – apparently Gloria is obsessed with them. There are screens ringing the walls above the audience seats.
When the lights go down at the top of the show, a montage of images from the women’s movement come across the screens, that end with a clip of a Gloria Steinem speech where she says, “This is a revolution not just a reform.” She looks like her iconic self – ageless, long light brown hair parted down the middle framing her face, oversized, lightly tinted aviator glasses, a dark colored turtleneck all we can see on her slim frame behind the podium. The lights go out and when they come up, there she is on the stage. It’s remarkable. Christine Lahti looks so much like her younger self they could be twins. And remarkably, she sounds like her too. Of course, she’s got the hair and the glasses and is dressed in a black turtleneck and black slightly bell-bottomed hip-huggers with a silver and black Concho belt around her hips, so that helps the illusion.
And literally, the first thing she says, after “Welcome!” is, “Everyone always asks me about the aviator glasses.” And she goes on to tell us that although they were prescription, they were also protection. But she doesn’t want to hide tonight, we’re all here together and she wants to share. The talking circle, or caucus – which we learn later on originally came from an Algonquin word, is a recurring theme in Gloria’s life and Gloria: A Life. Her life has been spent on the road, listening to other women and talking to them. Sharing stories, ideas, and strength. Leaning and learning.
The evening unfolds as a series of “Aha!” moments. With the help of six remarkable actors who comprise the ensemble, Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi and Liz Wisan, Gloria tells us about, and takes us through those moments. For the most part she takes us on a linear journey through her life with brief forays into her childhood as she begins to better understand her own drives and desires and how they’re linked to her family. She begins with her burgeoning career as a political journalist in the early 60’s when she was a freelance magazine writer, and the trouble she had being taken seriously by her male peers and editors as anything other than a pretty face. Which is how she wound up doing the legendary Playboy Bunny Club exposé article where she went undercover as a Bunny in 1963. And which haunted her for a long time.
Although Gloria: A Life covers a lot of ground in one act – almost 60 years – it goes by fast. But there is a second act even If there is no intermission. At the end of the play, after the curtain call, the actors stay on stage and Ms. Lahti announces that there is a short second act which will be a conversation with the audience, the cast and a special guest. Anyone who needs to use a restroom or leave is welcome to do so, but tonight’s special guest is very, very special. And then, Gloria Steinem, dressed almost identically to Ms. Lahti with the exception of a leopard print vest, walks onto the stage with a microphone. If you go to the website of the play you will see that there have been various special guests for the second act. I don’t know how often or when Ms. Steinem intends to be that special guest. All I know is that I feel incredibly lucky that I was there on that night. She is a remarkable human being who has, at great personal cost, done an awful lot to make all of our lives – male and female – better.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Certainly Christine Lahti, in the title role, looks like a museum replica of Ms. Steinem, from tinted aviator glasses to black bell-bottoms. (The costumes are by Jessica Jahn; the wigs by Anne Ford-Coates.) Ms. Lahti also gets the emotional style right — a style I would call assertive warmth with a hefty chaser of self-deprecation."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Images of ERA protests move people in the audience to tears; women cheer when long-familiar facts (the feminist magazine Ms. didn’t fold after its first issue!) are presented like new triumphs. When Gloria works, it’s when the political feels personal."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Emily Mann’s well-crafted play — which is equal parts biography, history lesson, TED talk and call to action — encourages just the sort of cathartic engagement that was on display with audience members."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"Directed in the round by Diane Paulus and put together by an almost entirely female creative team, the production is not as theatrically audacious as its subject was politically daring. What it does is give many audience members a release valve in our tumultuous times."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...