Wednesday, November 7, 2018

115 (2018-2019): GLORIA: A LIFE (seen November 6, 2018)

“Women for Peace and Equality”

Whatever it is with late 60s political activism, it seems like the local theatre scene can’t get enough of it. On Monday, I saw Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, a one-man biodrama (opening November 8) about Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968; next, I viewed Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, another biodrama, this one chronicling the career of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who came to national prominence in 1969; and later this week I’m booked for Days of Rage, about three young radicals in 1969 planning to take revolutionary action. 

I can’t yet speak of Days of Rage but both Kennedy and Gloria accomplish more as educational reminders of their titular characters’ ideas and achievements than they do as compelling dramas. 

Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Seeing Kennedy on Election Eve was a bit distressing, with its depiction of a potential POTUS whose charm, eloquence, and liberal positions stand in such stark contrast to our current president. But even more immediately electric in our #MeToo moment was seeing Gloria’s story of the rise of modern feminism unfold on Election Night itself in the spacious Daryl Roth Theatre, impressively arranged by designer Amy Rubin in arena style, with an audience of perhaps 90 percent women. I’m sure many watched with their focus split between the show and the voting. One can only imagine their elation afterward to learn of the record-breaking number of women, many of them people of color, elected to important positions.

Christine Lahti, Joanna Glushak. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Stage and screen star Christine Lahti, herself a notable feminist, is perfect casting for Steinem. The 68-year-old is every inch (actually a bit more than the original) the tall, still sleekly slim 84-year-old journalist, lecturer, activist, and organizer. You may remember that, early in her career, Steinem gained great notoriety for going undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose the working conditions of that profession. Regarding her famously attractive looks, click here for what she said at 83.
Company of Gloria: A Life. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jessica Jahn has accentuated Lahti’s low bodyfat ratio by dressing her in heels, formfitting black tunic and slacks, a Native American-style belt of large, linked, silver buckles, and a wig matching Steinem’s hairdresser-heightened color. Of course, those memorable Steinem aviator sunglasses get their moment in the sun.
Christine Lahti, DeLanna Studi, Liz Wisan, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mann’s script has been composed as what is, at its heart, a one-woman show, supplemented by a six-woman ensemble. Under Diane Paulus’s brightly tempoed direction, it rambles through the years, on a stage laid with Oriental rugs and a few props, flashing back to Steinem’s girlhood and family life, her college days (at Smith), and her rise to fame in the late 60s. Among the central situations is Steinem’s creation of MS. Magazine, which had such a surprisingly successful impact, despite the scoffers, that it made Ms. (which already existed) almost universal as the title for both married and unmarried women.  
Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the years go by, the principal feminist issues of the day (abortion a major one), as well as personal ones, are reflected both in the action and in excellent stills and video sequences created by Elaine J. McCarthy and projected simultaneously on opposite walls of the arena’s cushioned bleachers. A large number of other women who contributed importantly to modern feminism are thus honored.
Patrena Murray, Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The versatile, physically and racially diverse ensemble—Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan—plays multiple roles, changing costumes partly or entirely, to represent (often too broadly) many people, including men, in Steinem’s life. Most colorful, on stage as in life, is Bella Abzug, played with Abzugian flamboyance by Joanna Glushak.
Joanna Glushak, Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all its historical interest, and its red-hot relevance to those invested in the ongoing women’s movement, Gloria: A Life is more a docudrama than a drama, a history lesson about a fascinating, important, still living woman. Steinem has certainly faced hardships in her life, as with her psychologically troubled mother or the loss after only three years of the man (David Bale) she married at age 66 only to lose him to brain lymphoma three years later. There are moments of sadness, moments of triumph, and moments of laughter, but little dramatic tension.
Christine Lahti, Fedna Jacquet. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When the final line is spoken, a brief amount of time passes before a second act begins. This, though, is in the form of a talkback, with the cast spread about the space, Lahti at center, and mics made available for audience members to provide their personal responses to the feminist issues on display. Several speakers when I attended offered interesting, even touching comments, the best coming from a remarkably articulate girl who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12.
Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Christine Lahti, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, Liz Wisan. Photo: Joan Marcus,.
 Gloria: a Life is like a sermon to the choir—uplifting, informative, and excellently delivered—but, after an intermissionless hour and a half, not entirely lacking in dullness.
Christine Lahti. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Daryl Roth Theatre
103 E. 15th Street, NYC
Through January 27