I have seen a fair number of plays about icons, but this is the first one in which the icon, in the flesh, popped onto the stage to facilitate a discussion. But that’s what happened on opening night of “Gloria: A Life,” a multimedia, biographical theater piece based on the life of second-wave feminist powerhouse Gloria Steinem (at the Loeb Drama Center through March 1). At what appeared to be the play’s conclusion, the venerable journalist/activist, dressed almost exactly like the actress who portrays her, entered the playing space to field questions and coax out personal narratives from the audience.
Not that you will have the experience I did. Steinem was a heroine of my youth, and it was a thrill to see her still so empathetically and intensely engaged at 85. But what exactly was she doing onstage looking like an older version of her doppelgänger? Emily Mann’s ensemble theater piece, which premiered off-Broadway in 2018 and is directed by American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus, culminates in what its perpetrators call “Act 2” (there is no intermission), rooted in the Native American concept of the “talking circle.” In this portion of the show, the spectators are invited to tell their stories, a process that at subsequent performances will be facilitated by guest activists, academics and luminaries who are not Gloria Steinem.
In her 12-year tenure at the A.R.T., Paulus has proved an advocate of such audience engagement. A similar second act was wedged into the middle of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education” — though it was axed before the interview-based exploration of the school-to-prison pipeline traveled to New York. In my experience, such exercises in inclusion seldom add much, except, perhaps, for those who choose to speak. But what of the well-performed, exhilarating if inevitably hagiographic barrage of Steinem-centric storytelling that constitutes Act 1 of “Gloria: A Life”?
For older feminists (and I am one), it will serve as a gratifying, oft-cathartic trip down a sometimes rocky memory lane that increasingly threatens to take a U-turn. For younger women, who don’t remember a pre-Roe v. Wade world in which “Ms.” was neither a recognized prefix nor a magazine, it may serve as a warning about where the Neanderthals are trying to return us — albeit ameliorated by Steinem’s message that the feminist fight was always intersectional and must remain so. Moreover, if “Gloria” has one foot in recent history, the other is firmly set in the present, its performers stepping out of time to vilify the current administration, with its pro-life, hate-mongering bent, at every opportunity. Sure, they’re preaching to the choir, but they’re also aggressively invoking the choir to get off its dead ass and do something.
It was apparently Paulus whose idea it was to refashion “Gloria,” which Obie-winning documentary playwright Mann had first envisioned as a one-woman show (preferably starring its subject), as an ensemble piece. And at the Loeb as off-Broadway, the actors, whether representing such historically essential Steinem allies as African American civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy, Women’s Action Alliance co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller and irrepressible New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug or various, mostly dismissive males, is entirely female.
Still, “Gloria” is no “The Handmaid’s Tale” in terms of its artistry. It’s too much of a hit-all-the-bases whirlwind tour of the feminist movement anchored by its subject for that. But give the piece credit for emphasizing that, though the glamorous Steinem’s role was in some ways “to help break…. false stereotype,” the women’s movement was a hydra-headed thing and that many of its heads were of color.
While the other six members of the diverse cast play multiple roles, Patricia Kalember (who was part of the original off-Broadway ensemble) portrays only a disarmingly genuine Steinem, sporting the Ms. magazine founder’s trademark black bell-bottoms and aviator glasses, along with accessories that morph with the times. The sweet yellow cardigan of Steinem’s Smith College days gives way to a fringed vest, then a padded power jacket and Native American jewelry. Not to mention the corset and bunny tail in which the then-burgeoning journalist infiltrated the New York City Playboy Club in order to pen “A Bunny’s Tale,” the 1963 Show magazine exposé that put her on the map but which also fueled threatened-male efforts to objectify her.
Paulus ramps up the theatricality of the work’s march through the last 70 years with archival footage and fiery quotes that clamor for our attention on the large, variegated screens that loom behind the two sides of the audience. The spectators flank a playing space cozied up with Persian rugs and colorful cushions on which both actors and some spectators are seated. (The scenic design is by Amy Rubin.) Certainly the projected images provide déjà vu, much of it rallying, some of it — like a larger-than-life Richard Nixon inquiring, “For shit’s sake, how many people really have read Gloria Steinem and give one shit about that?” — hovering between hilarious and scary.
Of course, it helps a theater piece, however right-mindedly political it is, to have a beating heart. And Mann, who worked with Steinem for several years to create the work, supplies that organ in the form of Steinem’s relationship to her mother, pitiably rendered here by Joanna Glushak. Steinem was (in her word) “detached” from the invalid parent she had cared for from the age of 11 until she escaped to Smith. Yet Ruth Steinem’s dismal tale served as prologue to her own. A once-successful journalist, the elder woman was stifled by marriage to an itinerant man that led to a “nervous breakdown” and a lifetime on the same “pioneering tranquilizer” that was fed to Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. “Like so many women,” the play’s Steinem poignantly observes, “I am living the unlived life of my mother.” And, one might add, still doing a hell of a job of it.
“Gloria: A Life” continues at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through March 1.