theater review

Theater Review: Gloria: A Life Is Not a Bio-Play, and That’s a Good Thing

Christine Lahti as Gloria Steinem. Photo: Joan Marcus

The woman sitting next to me at the Daryl Roth Theatre leaned toward her daughter and pointed surreptitiously. “Look over there, there, with the red hair. Do you see her? That’s her. That’s Gloria Steinem.”

As a critic, I usually see shows shortly before the official opening, but last night I found myself at the first night of Gloria: A Life, the new play by Emily Mann that tells the story of the life and work of Gloria Steinem. And there she was, a row in front of me and a little to the left — kind eyes, that hair, and bright-red sequined belt. “She was, she is, so important to women in my generation,” the woman beside me said (we’d begun chatting by this point). “Do you know how old she is now?” I said I didn’t. She said, “You should know.” Which I think she said because I’d told her I worked for a magazine (the one Gloria Steinem helped to found in 1968) and was writing about the play, and therefore I should have done my homework. But even so, as I pulled out my phone to ask the internet, I thought, Yes, as a person, as a woman, I should know.

And for the next two hours, often with tears in my eyes, I never stopped feeling that way. Gloria: A Life isn’t a straightforward bio-play. It’s a unique, deeply moving performance created in the hopeful, conversational spirit of its extraordinary subject, an act of looking back in order to look forward, and — at least for me, though I think perhaps for many — a vital education.

Just as The Lifespan of a Fact introduces Broadway’s first all-female design team, Gloria has brought together an almost complete company of women that looks to be unprecedented either On or Off Broadway. Onstage and behind the scenes — from director Diane Paulus to the show’s producers to its designers, house managers, and stagehands — women are the power behind this story. In an optics-obsessed world where we’ve learned to put a woman center stage with some frequency, while creative teams remain largely male-dominated, shows like Lifespan and Gloria are a big deal. They tell us that, yes, women can be performers (Steinem herself was a dancer as a child; it was the way she originally imagined of “getting up and out”), but they can also be architects.

Because of the approach Mann and Paulus have taken, even the performers in Gloria read less like conventional actors, with the relatively low agency that comes with that territory, and more like members of a collaborative team. The ensemble of seven women, including Christine Lahti as Steinem, aren’t so much deeply lived-in characters — with both the psychophysical nuance and the insularity that implies — as they are storytellers. They slip in and out of roles, talking directly to us, a bit of themselves always present. When Lahti, who’s a spirited central narrator, wells up with emotion as she talks about her (i.e., Steinem’s) relationship to her mother, or of the cruel public blowbacks she’s experienced throughout her more than 50 years of activism, we sense that we’re not exactly seeing a character being sad. What we’re actually seeing is Lahti herself — clearly both honored to be telling the story she’s telling and genuinely, personally affected by it. Lahti doesn’t attempt some Daniel Day-Lewis-ian act of embodiment. Instead, she wears the incredible woman like one of Steinem’s famous pairs of aviator glasses, looking out through the persona so that she can actually see us, and we her.

Seeing each other is what Gloria: A Life is all about. Amy Rubin’s in-the-round set is a cozy arrangement of custom risers, all lined with cushions and colorful pillows. In the center are some Persian rugs, some stacks of books. “Humans are communal animals,” Lahti says as the show begins. “We’re meant to be sitting around campfires telling our stories, learning from each other … In fact, I would say being able to tell your story and listening to each other’s stories is the surefire path out. Because you realize you’re not crazy — the system is crazy. And you’re not alone.” Later, Delanna Studi takes on the role of Wilma Mankiller (chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985–95 and a friend and mentor of Steinem’s; Studi is actually Mankiller’s real-life cousin) and she expands upon this idea of the circle. “The heart of our governance is the caucus,” she tells Lahti’s Gloria. “[It’s] an Algonquin word that means ‘talking circles’ — it’s a consensus among women and men. The paradigm of human organization for us is the circle, not the pyramid.” I thought of the Western legends I absorbed as a child. King Arthur’s knights had a circle, a famous one. But there were no women in it.

Gloria’s determination to center the sharing of personal experience — and its warmhearted insistence on this kind of speaking and listening as an optimistic political act — feels like part of a pattern emerging in theater across the city, and it’s an immensely encouraging one. Shows like Black Light and What the Constitution Means to Me are currently modeling their own versions of the first-person narrative that interlaces memory, experience, and politics, and Samuel D. Hunter’s new show Lewiston/Clarkston, soon to open at Rattlestick, incorporates a communal meal served to its audience members between the individual, civically focused plays that make up its acts. In Gloria, Mann and Paulus expand the idea of the talking circle to the audience, raising the lights and bringing out microphones for a second act that consists of bringing us into the conversation. It’s not really a talkback — no dude-with-clipboard emerges with a list of innocuous, half-interesting questions for the playwright. Instead, it’s an attempt to bring one of the key tools employed by Steinem and her many fellow activists into the room, and it’s an honest request to hear from us — who are we? What are our stories?

In a stroke of opening-night magic, Steinem herself led the discussion when I saw the show. She stood and took the mic from Lahti, and the women embraced — poignantly discombobulating mirrors of each other in their black bootleg pants, low-heeled boots, shiny belts (Jessica Jahn did the simple, evocative costumes). In case you (like me) didn’t know, Steinem is 84 and intends to reach 100. She’s been working for my rights, for our rights, for our shared humanity, for almost twice my lifetime. She held the floor with utter ease and grace, and she listened.

And people talked. A Brazilian woman spoke. A woman with white hair and a European accent said she’d been sitting on her hands because she was so excited to tell her hero what she meant to her. A teacher said he’d brought his 14 students, that they had gone back to school talking about organizing their own talking circles — that they entered the theater “not knowing who you are,” he said to Steinem, “but when they left, they knew.” (“But do they know who they are? That’s the question,” said Steinem.) A young black woman talked about how important it was to her to see women activists of color recognized in the play — and how rare that is in the narrative of second-wave feminism, whose Wikipedia page still doesn’t include Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Margaret Sloan, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker, and many, many more.

Gloria includes and salutes them — some in Elaine J. McCarthy’s wonderfully informative projection design (she and sound designers Robert Kaplowitz and Andrea Allmond propel us through time in the show with an abundance of effective visual and aural excerpts from the historical record) and some in the bodies of Gloria’s actors. Patrena Murray makes a raucous, dauntless Flo Kennedy, a civil-rights lawyer and organizer who mentored the young Steinem, and Fedna Jacquet turns a brief appearance as Coretta Scott King into a stately gut punch, as well as bringing firebrand life to Dorothy Pitman Hughes. It’s thrilling to see her and Lahti stand side by side, re-creating the famous photo of Hughes and Steinem as McCarthy’s projections show it to us in both its iterations, more than 40 years apart.

“The truth is, I learned feminism from black women,” says Lahti’s Steinem. In a way, Gloria isn’t just a life: It’s an acknowledgement and celebration of many lives, dozens of brilliant, tireless women whose years and years of work hold us all up, even if all we know is their names — even if we don’t know them at all. There’s the fearless, cape-sporting, equal-rights-championing congresswoman and National Women’s Political Caucus co-founder, Bella Abzug (Joanna Glushak plants her feet and knocks our socks off in the fabulous part). There’s Wilma Mankiller, who teaches Gloria about the Iroquois basis for the U.S. Constitution. And there are all the ones history doesn’t remember, from the women and girls who write letters of fierce gratitude after Steinem co-founds Ms. magazine (which began as a special-issue insert in New York), to the Irishwoman cab driver who apparently originated the salty quip that became an iconic protest slogan (“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!”), to the women around the country who testify in the hundreds of talking circles Steinem helps organize, to her own mother, Ruth Nuneviller — a “loving, intelligent, terrorized woman” who gave up her life to her husband’s and lived for years in a drug-induced fog after a so-called “nervous breakdown.” A woman that Steinem didn’t discover until her own adulthood had been, like her, a journalist.

There’s so much we don’t know. About our history, about each other. I left Gloria feeling all sorts of things: heartbroken at the moment we’re living in, a moment of brutal backlash against so many decades of labor and belief; elated by the continued hopefulness of Steinem and of the artists telling her story (such a welcome contrast to the nasty, solipsistic “Everything is fucked” attitude that’s seeped into our daily way of speaking, no matter how progressive we profess to be); and a bit chastened. Why did I not know more of the story I was just told? Why were so many of these women only names and auras to me? Why didn’t the Virginia schools I went to take us on one fewer trip to Jamestown and instead include this — any of this — in the curriculum? My history teachers were all women, but something tells me the same couldn’t be said about the authors of the textbooks they were required to use. For some, Gloria: A Life might be a visit to an old friend, a love letter, an affirmation, a manifesto, an encouragement, or an experience of catalyzation or catharsis. It’s all these things, and it’s also a lesson.

Gloria: A Life is at the Daryl Roth Theatre through January 27.

Theater: Gloria: A Life Is Not a Bio-Play, and That’s Good