‘Gloria: A Life’ with Christine Lahti

Christine Lahti as Gloria

EXTENDED THRU MARCH 31, 2019

 

by Sandi Durell

 

Women come out in droves at the Daryl Roth Theatre off Broadway to witness the spirited performance by Christine Lahti as the one and only Gloria Steinem in this biographical tribute to the feminist icon, the play written by Emily Mann.

There’s the occasional male present (a good sign) and with the aid of double video screens in the theater turned nearly into the round, we are witness to the history of how women were kept repressed and in their place and how Steinem’s long list of accomplishments, from the time she was a young aspiring writer, took on the frustrations of women everywhere who felt powerless, exploited by men and society both in their private lives and in the workplace.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Gloria Steinem wanted to be a dancer—a Rockette —and went on to attend Smith College. Little did she know, at the time, her careers would take her on multifaceted paths as an activist and organizer for the women’s movement. Steinem’s mother takes on a big role in this life portrayal where, at a very young age, Gloria could not attend school because the family moved around so much and because her mother Ruth had a ‘nervous breakdown’ with little Gloria tending to her. Ruth Steinem herself was a writer, worked for a newspaper (using a man’s name) and would have had a career but for a husband who loomed large as the cause; and, rather than get a divorce, she instead had a nervous breakdown.

Stories abound as Gloria’s career brought her to the New York Times as a writer where she thought she’d be a political journalist but wound up writing about textured stockings! She went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to get the scoop on how women were being treated, quits and writes the story, which gives her some notoriety. But, even her own editor at the Times winds up propositioning her.

The fine direction by Diane Paulus has the six actors in Steinem’s life moving about the theater in Amy Rubin’s set filled with small, fabric-covered, easily moveable boxes on which to sit, lots of Persian rugs, stacks of books and the audience seating area itself, filled with colorful cushions.

The ensemble play all ages and genders, embodying all women and power players in the movement such as Florynce Kennedy (played by Patrena Murray), an outstanding Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation (played by DeLanna Studi) – a young mentor to Steinem reinforcing the circle pattern for human organization. Bella Abzug is heartily played by Joanna Glushak – a major force in Steinem’s life.

Christine Lahti, Joanna Glushak

When the usual news media is non-responsive to the women’s movement and to publishing articles about women and equality, the power players start up Ms. Magazine in 1971, selling out country-wide in eight days, with over twenty thousand letters from women arriving and telling their stories. But there’s also an opposition: the women who feel this movement is ruining their lives at home and for American families.

Gloria relates how she missed having a mother and a home. Eventually, as therapists and friends helped her look inside herself, her pain diminished for which she credits Wilma Mankiller and the time spent in Indian country learning from her.

Ms. Lahti not only looks a lot like Gloria Steinem but embodies a low-key passionate aura that speaks to her essence. Lahti’s thin and svelte body is dressed by Jessica Jahn in wide bottom black pants, with a big belt and aviator sunglasses.

Christine Lahti

Steinem was always a romance junkie, always with a man in her life, but never marrying. Finally, meeting David Bale (Christian’s father) when she was 66, she had the perfect relationship until he passed on three years later from brain lymphoma. Becoming more radical with age, she speaks to the fact that many women of a certain age finally have given themselves permission to be and say as they please. (I heartily harken to this!)

Other ensemble members include: Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Liz Wisan.

There is a brief break at the end of the play, with great enthusiastic applause and standing ovation, as the cast continues for another 20 minutes of talk-back time in the circle of friends, introducing audience member (at the show I attended) Fay Wattleton (former elected President Of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, first African-American woman elected to that position) as a microphone is passed to her for an opening statement on her thoughts. Other members of the audience speak, including a teacher of young children who daily finds that little boys of this generation still talk the talk of inequality toward the little girls, which is obviously present in their homes; women who speak about sexual harassment at work; a woman who marched in the 70s and other stories that loom large in the fight against oppression.

Noticeable is the demographic of the audience: more senior with many reliving the era of the movement.

However, the end result became more of a political rally against white women who voted for President Trump, changing the tone of a fine portrayal of an icon and history of the women’s movement as well as this play’s intention – to continue to raise awareness for all women and keep the flames of equality burning.  Respect and tolerance must prevail if we’re to survive as a society!

 

Photos: Joan Marcus

 

Gloria: A Life – Through January 27 at the Daryl Roth Theatre (101 East 15th Street, between Irving Place and Union Square East). Runtime: two hours. www.darylroththeatre.com

 

 

Share