What can you say about Gloria Steinem, the now 84-year-old pioneering journalist and feminist, in a mere 100 minutes? As it turns it out, Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life at the Daryl Roth Theatre manages to paint quite a vivid portrait of one of the most remarkable women of the 20th (and 21st) centuries.
Sure, the play doesn’t quite do full justice to Steinem’s life, but the savvy and inventive direction of Tony Award winner Diane Paulus and an extremely appealing central performance by the great Christine Lahti – who provides something far more than mere impersonation – manage to make the work’s few shortcomings seem less important than they might have in other hands.
What’s particularly satisfying about Mann’s work here is her focus on Steinem’s mostly untold story. For example, Steinem’s recollections of a dirt-poor childhood that led to an even harder adolescence, in which she was forced to take care of her mentally ill mother, are heartbreaking. Moreover, they give us both an extra appreciation of Steinem’s many accomplishments as well as spectacular insight into her inner battle to find her voice.
We also learn more – or perhaps for the first time – about her interactions with historical figures as diverse as New York City politician Bella Abzug, African American activist Florynce Kennedy and Native American leader Wilma Mankiller (portrayed, as are all the characters, by an amazing female ensemble of six).
Plus, it proves to be extremely instructive to watch actual news footage that condemned Steinem’s work, along with re-dramatizations of moments such as the one when Steinem was handily berated for destroying the nuclear family by a caller on Larry King’s CNN show. (The excellent projection design is by Elaine J. McCarthy.)
And while I had some recollections of Steinem’s life as a gal-around-town, I had forgotten that Steinem finally got married at age 66 (for both practical and romantic reasons), and that her husband David tragically died of cancer just a few years later – after which Steinem further resolved to focus on the feminist movement.
As Mann reminds us, no one had better motives to assert her rights as a woman than Steinem, who was belittled early in her career by male writers like Gay Talese and who practically ended up being defined by her short time working as a Playboy bunny, even though she was working there undercover for a newspaper exposé.
But what makes the evening particularly special is that Gloria: A Life is no conventional theatrical experience. After the play concludes, the audience (seated on surprisingly comfortable and colorful pillow-backed risers by Amy Rubin) is asked to participate in one of Steinem’s favorite activities: a talking circle. (It is, as she notes in the play, what we called a “consciousness-raising group” in the 1970s).
While no one is forced to share their thoughts and feelings, listening to the members of the audience express their reactions, memories and even secrets makes this section of the show an unusual experience, no matter who the guest leader turns out to be. (Steinem has been known to lead many of these circles herself.)
In so many ways, Gloria: A Life functions as much more than a play. It’s a catharsis for many women (and men) of all ages, a reminder about what has come before and how far we still have to go in the battle for human rights, and an affirmation of just how special Gloria Steinem really is.