Gloria: A Life, by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, captures Gloria Steinem’s ascent from a young journalist relegated to “women’s interest” stories to an icon of the feminist movement. Active in promoting women’s rights from the 1970s on, she is famous for saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The play is performed in two acts: the first act is the story of Steinem’s life, and the second is a “talking circle,” in which the audience is invited to carry on a conversation about the themes of the play.
In the lead role, Christine Lahti captures Steinem with poise and grace as she narrates the personal and political story of Steinem’s life. Costume designer Jessica Jahn expertly recreates Steinem’s memorable style—black leather jacket, Southwestern style belt, and aviator glasses— making Lahti a near doppelgänger to the real Steinem (both are also very thin and lanky). When the play opens, Steinem (Lahti) greets the audience: “Welcome! Everyone asks me about the aviator glasses. I mean, they were prescription, but they were also about protection. The bigger the better. The hair, too. But I don’t want anything to come between us tonight,” and she removes her glasses, capturing Steinem’s warmth as a public figure.
Steinem was an unlikely candidate to spearhead a radical movement. She was educated at Smith College, where women went to get their M.R.S. (Mrs.), a path she knew wasn’t right for her. After graduation, she moved to New York City to be a journalist. She worked for several magazines and in 1963, she was assigned to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the newly opened New York Playboy Club. Her groundbreaking insider story, “A Bunny’s Tale,” put her on the map as a journalist, but she still felt dissatisfied by the fact that women were not taken seriously.
One day, riding in a cab with Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, discussing how to best interview Bobby Kennedy, she has an idea which is met with derision.
Talese (to Bellow): You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer?
Talese: Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.
She wanted to be more than a pretty face and, after attending a hearing in Albany about whether to liberalize New York State laws on abortion in 1969, she knew she had to do something more to give women a voice: the decisions were in the hands of 14 men and one nun. In 1971, Steinem and a handful of other women founded Ms. Magazine, which filled a journalistic void and was an immediate success.
Directed by Emmy Award–winner Diane Paulus, who is known for pushing physical boundaries, the theater experience is intimate and informal, even though seats are assigned. Set designer Amy Rubin has tastefully transformed the Daryl Roth space into a theater in the round with throw pillows behind seat backs. Large Persian rugs cover the floor to indicate stage space, supplemented by small, low stools that actors move around to create scenes. Lahti is joined by a multicultural cast of women: DeLanna Studi, Patrena Murray, Joanna Glushak, Liz Wisan, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Fedna Jacquet, and Brittany K. Allen, who play multiple roles. It’s worth noting that the production team is all women.
Video, by Elaine J. McCarthy, shows a montage of historical footage as well as is used in real time, a device the Wooster Group pioneered to expose the inner and outer lives of the performers. A handheld camera zooms in on Steinem’s face, which is projected on a large screen, scrutinizing every blink and twitch. We see tears well as she tells the story of her mother, but then she brushes them aside to gain composure as she readies herself for a talk show interview.
The show is an opportunity to celebrate not only Steinem’s life but black women, such as Gloria Pittman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy and countless others, who Steinem saw as instrumental architects of the feminist movement. A self-proclaimed “hope-aholic,” Steinem’s story is sure to inspire both men and women to take action for a better future.
Gloria: A Life is playing through March 31 at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets ($89–$150) and information, visit gloriatheplay.com.