Gloria: A Life
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Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: Patricia Kalember replaces Christine Lahti in the role of Gloria Steinem starting January 29, 2019.]
During the bioplay Gloria: A Life, Gloria Steinem (as played by Christine Lahti) quotes the oft-cited maxim that “the personal is political.” In the late '60s and '70s, that was the bedrock truth that got women marching, striking, organizing and legislating. But what triggers the intermittent power of Diane Paulus’s production are moments when the team reverses that truism. Images of ERA protests move people in the audience to tears; women cheer when long-familiar facts (the feminist magazine Ms. didn’t fold after its first issue!) are presented like new triumphs. When Gloria works, it’s when the political feels personal.
Playwright Emily Mann has Steinem explain her life in PowerPoint fashion (complete with slides), taking us from her complicated childhood to a life of journalism in New York, which eventually accelerated into activism. A sextet of women plays all the other parts—Joanna Glushak plays Bella Abzug, for instance, and DeLanna Studi plays Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller. (Mainly they’re on hand to nod supportively.) There are a few glimmers of self-doubt but little real conflict with or questioning of Steinem’s legacy: it need hardly be said that this is the approved biography. Judged as a piece of drama, Mann’s retelling of Steinem’s story is thus unexciting and by-the-numbers; as a piece of performance, Lahti’s portrait seems both sleepy and stiff. But Gloria is not really supposed to be either drama or traditional performance. Mann and Paulus envision it as an old-fashioned consciousness-raising ritual: The audience sits in a circle, and every show culminates in a talkback-cum-therapy session. A sermon tends to be as good as its congregation—and on nights when the room rocks with latter-day feminist rage, the service feels very good indeed.
Daryl Roth Theater (Off Broadway). By Emily Mann. Directed by Diane Paulus. With Christine Lahti. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.