Daryl Roth Theatre
103 East 15th St. between Irving Pl. & Park Ave.
Saturday - Tuesday through March 31, $55-$150
Gloria: A Life is being billed as a play about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, but that’s not completely accurate; it’s really more of an illustrated lecture/performance than a truly dramatic narrative, a relatively chronological recap of her life and career. Told by Oscar, Emmy, and Obie winner Christine Lahti as Steinem, complete with aviator sunglasses, bell-bottoms, and long brown hair, the story evolves as a diverse group of six women take on multiple roles. Tony-nominated writer Emily Mann (Having Our Say, Execution of Justice) and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, All the Way) capture Steinem’s greatest hits, from her early days in journalism, including her breakthrough Playboy bunny exposé, her New York magazine story on abortion, and the harsh misogyny she encountered, to her founding of Ms., her participation in the 2017 Women’s March, and her unfortunately brief marriage to David Bale. Lahti stays primarily in the center of Amy Rubin’s comfy theater-in-the-round set, which features rows of benches, each seat with its own brightly colored pillow back. Actresses Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan portray various Steinem friends and enemies, colleagues, and family members, including Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Steinem’s mother.
Archival footage of Steinem is projected onto two walls of the theater, along with occasional live video of what’s happening onstage, primarily re-creations of actual interviews. It’s all fairly straightforward and lacking any real conflict; Lahti does not attempt to completely transform herself into Steinem — for example, she uses her real speaking voice and doesn’t change costumes or hairstyle to match the passing years — while the other actresses’ portrayals tend to be underwhelming or over the top. But the show is hard not to like as Steinem, now eighty-four and the author of such books as Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions and My Life on the Road, is a captivating figure and Lahti, sixteen years younger and the author of the new essay collection True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age, which features advance praise on the back cover from Steinem, is utterly charming as our host.
After ninety minutes, Gloria changes direction and turns into a Talking Circle where the audience in invited to participate in a discussion about the play, Steinem, or other issues related to feminism and the world today. A sign announces, “Lead with love. Low ego. High impact. Move at the speed of trust.” The night I went, Lahti moderated the conversation, but there are often special guests, such as Lena Dunham, Christiane Amanpour, Julie Menin, show consultant Kathy Najimy, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Steinem herself. It was a fascinating exchange of ideas about the absence of African American women in second-wave feminism, the decision to not mention Betty Friedan in the play, how the vast majority of the crew and producers are women, and the impact of current activist movements. Among those in the audience were Melissa Silverstein, cofounder and producing director of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard, New York City political stalwart Ruth Messinger, and a woman who once worked for Steinem, a self-described hope-aholic who, after all these years, still believes every one of us can make a difference.