Gloria: A Life is less a piece of theatre and more an act of communion and consciousness-raising, just like the '70s feminist "talking circles" Gloria Steinem herself found so inspiring—and which are reborn at the Daryl Roth Theatre where this play opened Thursday night.
Yes, the excellent, charismatic Christine Lahti skillfully embodies Steinem in the play’s first act, sweeping us through Steinem’s 84-year trajectory from Smith College grad (not into twinset and pearls), through feminist awakening to cultural notoriety to inspiring leader and genuine icon.
But the play, at least the night this critic saw it, comes to an even more emotional and forceful life in its second half, with the theatre-in-the-round transformed into a '70s-style “talking circle,” thrillingly presided over that night by Steinem herself, its audience of mostly women speaking truths, confessing fears, hurts, strengths, achievements, aspirations, and moving appreciation to Steinem herself for directly and indirectly changing their lives.
A spokesperson for the show told The Daily Beast that the real Steinem had appeared in a few shows “and will occasionally drop in going forward.” Steinem is not scheduled to attend at regular intervals, so book your tickets and take a chance. Other guests will also appear in the second half.
The first half of Gloria: A Life, directed by Diane Paulus, is a busy but didactic surf through Steinem’s own history and place within the women’s movement; it's a fascinating history lesson if you were not aware of it and even if you were (or at least of elements of it), an impressive and inspiring reminder of a resumé of pithy writing, determined resistance, and brave stands taken—and really obnoxious male TV hosts who thrived on attempted humiliation.
Lahti wears Steinem’s black pants and tight, boxy jacket and occasionally a jaunty red scarf (and back in the '70s section of the play, a red knitted tunic).
But Gloria: A Life is not a critical interrogation of its subject. It does not seek to question or interrogate Steinem’s work, beliefs, impact, and legacy. It seeks to celebrate them, and it does so in Steinem’s voice. If she doesn’t appear in Emily Mann’s script as a saint, she is certainly unimpeachably good and right.
The first half of the play is rousing to watch, but rarely willing to burrow deeper and more critically into its subject. Gloria: A Life isn’t anything of the sort; it’s more "The Glory of Gloria: By Gloria," a highly curated and selective positive biography.
Yes, we hear about her difficult relationship with her mother, and the latter’s terrible final years. We also hear of the death of her husband, David Bale, who she married in 2000 (she had been single up to then) and who died in 2003.
But we do not hear about the relationships she had before then, or her time as a CIA agent. She does not share the evolution of her views on transgender people. In The Advocate in 2013 Steinem moved to clarify remarks attributed to her in the 1970s about transgender people “mutilating” themselves, written she said “in the context of global protests against routine surgical assaults, called female genital mutilation by some survivors.”
In 2013 Steinem wrote, “I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned. Their health care decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make. And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of 'masculine' or 'feminine' and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.”
What other changes or evolutions of belief are missing from the play, you wonder? Lahti-as-Steinem shows us tough times, and times of self-questioning and development, but we do not see Steinem in anything other than a good light.
This is Gloria: The Life That Is Mainly Known, including her time as a Playboy Club Bunny Girl (and all its perilous standing positions) and the setting up of Ms. magazine, greeted with such deriding commentary by men—because who else but men commented about anything in the early 1970s?
Other characters are played by a supporting cast of six actors—Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan—who are of various ages and ethnicities. They play other women, men, and demonstrators. The pluralism and connectivity Steinem passionately believes in is right there in front of us in this cast.
One of the most emphatic and welcome things about the show is the repeated thanks and credit given to black feminists in forming and galvanizing the modern feminist movement. As Steinem notes, TV interviewers wanted to talk to her (white, pretty, telegenic), and it was infuriating that her POC sisters were largely ignored and made invisible in history.
Here they are not. They are named, the well-known and not: Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Angela Davis, Florynce Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Margaret Sloan, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker. “And we could go on and on,” says Steinem. Their photographs are projected on to the walls. There is video of them.
Steinem, building a career as a journalist, was, she said, patronized by Gay Talese and Saul Bellow and grubbily propositioned by a New York Times editor. Waiting for one celebrity in the Plaza Hotel, she was booted out by a snooty manager who said women couldn’t sit alone there (if they did, they were assumed to be a prostitute). Don’t worry: Steinem got a stinging revenge.
This first half's snapshots in time, whatever they lack dramatically, are a careful tracing of how the women's movement came to be (marches, conferences, quorums, organizing, sharing, respecting, listening) and have an instructive urgency.
America’s complex history around abortion may be well-known (Steinem’s own abortion less so, but it is told here). But that history cannot be told enough; the attacks on women’s right to control their bodies has entered a dark new phase under the Trump administration. Other sections of the play are devoted to Bella Abzug, and Steinem’s friendship with Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee nation.
The play brings us right up to the present day: the Women’s March, after Trump’s inauguration, and the moment the Kavanaugh hearings were distinguished by the women—Ana Maria Archila, a national committee member of the Working Families Party and an executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, and Maria Gallagher—who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator.
The message that the real Steinem delivered in act two the night this critic saw it was not to feel isolated or beaten down, that the fight goes on, and everyone—in whatever way felt right for them—has a part to play.
Women spoke of sexual assault, of pride in taking charge of their professional lives; a man tearfully said his ancestors had been Klansmen, and he was moved to hear of the black women at the heart of the movement.
“Remember Martin Luther King. Do not obey unjust laws,” said Steinem.
One woman asked how best one could keep going.
“Get up every day, do what you can do do, make sure you have support,” said Steinem.
“At my age, most people are dead,” she said to laughs. Next, she added, she would try stand-up comedy.
As this critic left a woman said behind him, “84? She’s amazing.” And that, whatever its dramatic deficiencies, is the indisputable heart of Gloria: A Life.
Gloria: A Life is at the Daryl Roth Theatre, New York City, booking through Jan. 27, 2019.