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Gloria: A Life
By Elyse Sommer
Emily Mann's prize winning play about Gloria Steinem opened at the Daryl Roth Theater on Union Square two years ago. The MeToo Movement was much in the news and the All-About-Me President Donald d Trump was already doing his best to destroy our democracy.
But our daily lives were still normal enough to ride public transportation, and pursue our personal and professional interests. For me that meant attending at least two press openings a week as I'd been doing for CurtainUp since 1996. Thus I saw Goria: A Life the day before its official opening on October ff 17, 2018.
With theater going still in deep freeze, I was thrilled that I'd have a chance to revisit the show courtesy of THIRTEEN's Great Performances streamed presentations of outstanding stage works. I Was doubly thrilled to discover that the performance filmed was the same one I attended. While there's nothing like being there with that deeply moved audience, the performance has been very well filmed and is well worth adding to your not to be missed on screen viewing list.
And so, since the performance available on your screen is the same one I saw and reviewed (I actually caught a glimpse of myself in the audience), I'll continue by posting my original review below.
Like Ms. Steinem's own upper East Side apartment the floors are covered with Persian rugs. The props consists of a few colorfully upholstered hassocks which will be put to multiple uses as we move through the five decades of Steinem's life. The comfortably Kilim cushioned seats encircling the stage support this sense of visiting Ms. Steinem for a conversation about the battles women have fought over the decades — and are fighting more intensely than ever.
Mann's script is structured into three parts, each of which introduces us to another decade— with the third part taking us from the 80s to the post Trump Women's March of 2017. After just a brief pause, there's second act that's essentially a talk-back with variously invited guests to host the audience's active participation in this play-cum-talking circle conversation. At my performance I had the great good luck to have the real Gloria Steinem as the host of that segment.
There's a lot of ground to cover in Steinem's long journey from Toledo, Ohio to Smith College, to New York. It was not until she arrived there to become a journalists that the roadblocks to that ambition first made her aware that women needed a movement.
Naturally, there's a replay of her famous undercover stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the article about it that finally freed her from the female ghetto of writing strictly on spec about women's interest subjects like beauty, fashion, housekeeping and romance. We learn that this story actually happened when as a free-lancer at Show Magazine she heard the editors wondering whether they should cover the about to open Playboy club and popped up with "Why don't we ask Dorothy Parker to go undercover as a Bunny?" Her joke turned into an assignment she didn't want but took because she needed the money to pay her rent. The time spent on the Bunny business isn't just funny but depressingly relevant which is why Lahti-Gloria stops the music long enough to voice her amazement that a new Playboy Club opened here in NY, 30 years after Hefner himself declared the Bunny "a symbol of the past?"
Christine Lahti, who last distinguished herself in the revival of one of Suzann-Lori Park's Red Letter Plays (review) not only convincingly inhabits the titular role but is a reasonably convincing Steinem look-alike.
Ms. Mann's script is stuffed with countless other both humorous and moving defining moments in Steinem's personal and professional life, and with dozens of characters for Lahti's Gloria to effectively share with us. That's where the multi-generational, diverse ensemble and Elaine J. McCarthy's projected replays of historic events and figures come into play. Under Ms. Paulus's adept direction, an event is often presented simultaneously on stage and in the scene projected on the panels at the rear of two of the four seating sections.
The program listings for the six ensemble members don't include references to their roles. That's because this terrifically versatile sextet acts as a chorus to echo and expand on Gloria's dialogue as they take turns as the characters in the more detailed recollections. Their popping up in the aisles as well as on stage to move the props around as well as act does get a bit busy at times, but it works.
Joanna Glushak is heart-wrenching as Steinem's mother, a talented woman who never fulfilled her potential because she married unwisely, and stuck to that marriage. It's her assuring her daughter that she's not sorry because "if I'd left, you'd never have been born" that has propelled Gloria to live the "unlived life" of her mother. Glushak gets to shift to a more accomplished and amusing character, as the colorful, outspoken former Democratic Congresswoman Bella Abzug.
While I seem to be singling out Glushak, her ensemble colleagues all have their standout scenes. Their quick-as-a-wink role switches are greatly abetted Jessica Jahn's costumes. In fact, the entire production is enriched by the work of the all female design team.
Since the audience at my performance ran the age gamut and included quite lot of men. It will be an intriguing first meet-up for those too young to have voted for New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug or to know African-American activist Angela Davis and Phyllis Schlafly, a forerunner to the Evangelical women who voted for Donald Trump.
Obviously not everything can be fully explored in less than two hours. But then Steinem's books are still available in whatever your preferred reading format.
While some of the harrowing accounts of pre-Roe V. Wade abortion experiences are depressingly timely, Lahti's Gloria sees the can-do response to the unprecedented crisis we currently live in as a cause for her continued optimism. After all, as she puts it "Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle" as they do at the Daryl Roth Theater.
But to validate Ms. Steinem's optimism after you leave that circle you'll need to follow it up by going out to vote, perhaps run for office yourself, or work for someone who does.
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Websites for viewing Glorial A Life
http://www.pbs.org/gperf, http://www.facebook.com/GreatPerformances, @GPerfPBS #GreatPerformancesPBS
Gloria: A Life
Written by Emily Mann
Directed by Diane Paulus
Cast: Christine Lahti(Gloria Steinem)
Ensemble:Joanna Glushack,Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Fedna Jacquet, Patrena Murray;DeLanna Studi,Liz Wisan,Brittany K. Allen
Scenic Design: Amy Rubin
Costume Design: Jessica Jahn
Lighting Design: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz, Andrea Allmond
Projection Design:Elaine J. McCarthy
Running Time: 2 hours including a brief pause
Daryl Roth Theatre on Union Square 101 East 15th Street
From 10/02/18; opening 10/18/18; closing 3/31/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/17/18 press preview
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