Gloria: A Life

January 30, 2020

in Plays

Play (2020)
by Emily Mann

Directed by Diane Paulus

American Repertory Theater
Loeb Drama Center, Harvard University
Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA
January 24 – March 1, 2020

With Patricia Kalember (Gloria Steinem), Gabrielle Beckford, Joanna Glushak, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers, Eunice Wong, Rachel Cognata (Swing)

Patricia Kalember as Gloria Steinem in 'Gloria: A Life'

Patricia Kalember as Gloria Steinem
in “Gloria: A Life”
Photo: ©APrioriPhotography.com

An informative, entertaining and inspiring account of the life and career of the noted woman’s rights activist Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, the iconic feminist and founder of Ms. magazine, is an amazingly engaging personality and has had an inspired and energetic career promoting women’s rights. This lively, witty and sometimes poignant account of her life and career, given an energetic and appealing production by the team at the American Repertory Theater, does as much justice to her as one can imagine in a relatively concise stage production.

More of a bio-play than a narrative drama per se, the show has, nonetheless, owing to the historic and challenges Steinem and the women’s movement faced, enough inherently dramatic material to keep it ticking.

Not unexpectedly, the dramatic moments in Steinem’s life surround engagements with other inspiring women who were engaged in one aspect of the movement or another. As this play and production so vividly exhibit, and which may come as news to some, a good number of those who influenced Steinem profoundly and significantly were women of color.

As Steinem, Patricia Kalember is so adept at conveying the look and spirit of her character that when, in the talkback after the performance during which Steinem herself showed up on the stage in the same general outfit as Kalember wears during the performance, it was shocking, and almost funny, to see them side by side. In fact, Steinem more or less said that it was very strange to see herself depicted so vividly in this way. Apart from the similarity of looks and dress, Kalember gives such an amazing simulacrum of Steinem’s character and gestalt that it is not only compelling but a bit spooky.

The supporting cast, which provides an array of imaginative characterizations throughout, is also adept at doing so. Notably, the depiction of Bella Abzug, women’s rights activist from the 1960s, is vivid, funny, incisively broad, and very much to the point. The portrayal of Steinem’s once capable and eventually schizophrenic mother is persuasively heartbreaking.

Video and pictorial montages are displayed on both ends of the theater to supplement the history and are done articulately and efficiently, giving a straightforward and tangible set of references to the elaborate history described in the narrative.

Playwright Mann has chosen an interesting array of episodes from Steinem’s life to delineate her subject. Deep enough in the past that one might not know of it, for example, is Steinem’s early work as an adventurous freelance journalist which, in an early phase, involved Steinem’s taking on a role as a Playboy bunny in order to research and write about it.

Moving, as well as cogent and to the point, are the many Steinem quotations that show up. Steinem is, by nature, a person who delivers straightforwardly witty bons mots by the pound, and Emily Mann has done a deft job of integrating those into the performance, spicing the plot, such as it is, with a rich palette of homegrown verbal seasonings.

I’m a hopeaholic says Kalember qua Steinem, and articulates how vividly, even during the acknowledged political challenges of the current day, Steinem’s sense of possibility reigns.

Other quotes, in rapid passing, abound: What do you say to someone who calls you a bitch? Thank you! Or If women could really sleep their way to the top, there would be a lot more women at the top!

Certainly, the risk and daring involved in trying to launch Ms. magazine in the early 1970s are drawn effectively, giving a real sense of the challenges to starting a women’s magazine of this sort during that time. Worrying that it would be a failure, the play very nicely and dramatically depict how Steinem and her team release the first issue, only to discover that it sells out in eight days. The follow-up that they receive 20,000 letters into their small editorial office in response to that first issue also offers a sweet moment. It’s hard to believe that fragility of hope in the earliest days of the magazine now that Ms. is an icon and a piece of history, but Mann’s narrative does a good job of giving a sense of that vulnerability and the shock of success that followed.

Poignant and revelatory is the account of Steinem’s brief but happy marriage, at 66, to David Bale (who happens to have been the father of actor Christian Bale), and who died of cancer three years later.

Playwright Emily Mann was, as well, at the opening night performance I attended. She noted that she had been an undergraduate at Harvard forty-five years ago and, interested in a career in drama at the time, was encouraged by Harvard personnel at the time to look into children’s theater as a suitable career for a woman. Mann recalled that she recoiled at the implicitly limiting suggestion, and, with encouragement and inspiration from such emerging sources as Steinem’s Ms. magazine and Steinem’s own example, sought out a career in mainstream theater where, as a playwright, she’s had notable success.

In the conclusion, Steinem’s and Mann’s observation to the audience that the play is a story to make it okay to tell your story rang distinctively true.

Steinem, extremely youthful at 85, spent a good amount of time fielding questions and comments after the show. She treated the encounter as more of a sharing experience, and, indeed, there were many people who opened up quite emotionally and significantly as a result of Steinem’s distinctively warm, encouraging and sympathetic manner. Steinem is down to earth and matter of fact, self-effacing and funny, and her inspiring presence served to bolster the sense one gets so vividly from the show – that of a social reformer who has put her ideals rather than herself in the spotlight and has worked selflessly, tirelessly, and gracefully towards them.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rozann Kraus February 9, 2020 at 12:34 pm

Thanks so much, Charlie. Great review! (as always)
I was contemplating taking my daughters to see this. I asked Jennah if she’d like to see the play about Gloria Steinem. When she replied “who’s she?”, I reserved front row seats for her and Liz. Oy.
love you,
~R

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