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Gloria: A Life

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Christine Lahti in front of Gloria Steinem photo. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Christine Lahti in front of Gloria Steinem photo. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Gloria: A Life, now featured at off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre, may turn out to be the most touching and revealing stage happening of this theater season. Not a conventional production, this play/group therapy session was written by Emily Mann and creatively directed by Diane Paubus.

The action takes place in the center of the venue, where Amy Rubin arranged area rugs as Steinem likes them in her own apartment, with covered stools and piles of books. The audience sits amphitheater-style, watching as if in a living room "conscience-raising" group. As many may remember, all that's needed is a bottle of red.

Enter Gloria Steinem, played convincingly by Christine Lahti, who not only projects a physical likeness but an embodiment of Steinem- Spirit, fiercely intelligent, earthy and yet elegant and shy. The Look is unquestionable -- aviator glasses, long streaked hair and '70's casual chic hip huggers, silver belt and big silver rings, with familiar Steinem arm and hand expressions. Welcoming arms open, she says, "We’re all in this room together and not alone on our computers or cell phones! Humans are communal animals—we’re meant to be sitting around campfires telling our stories—learning from each other— we’ve been doing it for millennia." In the age of #MeToo, Time's Up, the young Parkland activists and the recent Senate Kavanaugh hearings, complete with Sen. Jeff Flake cornered in an elevator, this was what the audience came to hear.

Act One is non-linear. Steinem's personal stories unveil not going to school until age 11. (Still, she was admitted to Smith College. Obviously this packed life story cannot address all the pinpoints of Steinem's 84 years). She became the caregiver for her mother (Joanna Glushak) who was addicted to tranquilizers, disabled although she had once lived a life with talent and ambitions that she had to give up. Glushak also portrays the indefatigable New York Representative Bella Abzug with toughness and humor.

Lahti is helped in her performance by an ensemble of six women, just as Steinem was aided by other committed women. Steinem admitted her shyness in public speaking and she turned to women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Coretta King (both played by Fedna Jacquet) to stand with her. Added was the outspoken Florynce Kennedy (Patrena Murray) and the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller (DeLanna Studi). Not included is the name of Betty Friedan who instigated much of this second wave of feminism.

Shown are familiar faces of women from the early days when feminists, called "Women's Lib," were mocked and ridiculed. When Steinem appeared on The Larry King Show, she listened as a caller said, "I’ve suspected for the last 15 years that Gloria Steinem should rot in hell." She heard many statements like that and admits that "Sometimes it hurts."

Costumes for the various women in and out were designed by Jessica Jahn. Songs of the 60's and '70's ("You Don't Own Me," "Respect") further defined the era and the movement. Paubus amplifies Steinem's story with enlightening projections by Elaine J. McCarthy, recalling her activism against the Vietnam war, gun violence and arguing for civil, gender and abortion rights. Included are the overdone stories of Steinem's early Playboy bunny days and years later, a new magazine called Ms, formed by Steinem and friends.

Even with the emotional tales of women's illegal abortions, Steinem's devotion to her mother's care, and the man she finally married and lost to cancer after a few years, it is in Act Two when the drama is heightened. In a 20-minute conversation segment, one 15-year-old girl spoke about learning so much from what she just heard, how the movement had made her mother a woman to be proud of and an example for her. Several women of different ages spoke emotionally about being paid less than men doing the same job. Others mentioned being sexually abused. Especially moving was an elderly man who became emotional and unable to start. When he finally did speak, he was overcome with tears, saying how he was always told that "boys do not cry."

Lahti listened carefully. "The rage many of us are feeling right now can be an energy cell. Whether you're talking to family, or marching with friends, or putting your foot in an elevator door and forcing a Senator to listen -- don't worry about what you should do, just do whatever you can do."

La Femme Theatre Productions
Daryl Roth Theatre
20 Union Square, New York, NY 10003
Opening: Sept. 18, 2018. Closing: Mar. 31, 20198
Running time: 90 minutes. Short intermission before 20 min. conversation.
Cast: Christine Lahti, DeLanna Studi, Petrena Murray, Joanna Glushak, Liz Wisan, Francesca McKenzie, Fedna Jacquet, and Brittany K. Allen DeLanna Studi, Patrena Murray, Joanna Glushak, Liz Wisan, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Fedna Jacquet, and Brittany K. Allen 
Playwright: Emily Mann
Directed: Diane Paulus

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2018 

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