Emily Mann’s play “Gloria—A Life,” as impressively staged by director Diane Paulus, is part biography and part pep rally for the women’s movement. That makes the experience of seeing it informative and motivational, as well as entertaining. Christine Lahti is delightful and inspiring as Gloria Steinem, the subject of the well-earned salute, and an excellent ensemble sketches in various characters related to Steinem’s rise as a feminist icon and the issues on which she battles.
The play, staged in a large arena setting, has Steinem (Lahti) as the host. She talks about her life, her experiences, what she has had to endure as a women rising in a writing career, the founding of Ms. Magazine and her participation in important women’s rights battles. Projections (designed by Elaine J. McCarthy) are hugely displayed on two walls to show marches and leading figures of the era. This prompts frequent applause by supportive audience members.
Of course, Steinem speaks about her early episode of going undercover to do a feature article about the Playboy Club bunnies. She gets laughs out of describing her bunny training, including the proper sexy dip when serving customers, and donning the bunny outfit complete with ears and fluffy tail. The resulting article launched Steinem’s career, but she expresses regret that no matter what she has done in life, she’ll always be remembered for that episode.
There is poignancy in the segment about Steinem’s ailing mother and devotion in caring for her, and the revelation that her mother had started as a writer but gave it up for domesticity provides an extra jolt.
Among the portrayals I enjoyed was an exaggerated impression of Bella Abzug, lawyer, congresswoman, and women’s movement activist. Joanna Glushak gets the caricature down pat. (Glushak is touching also playing Steinem’s mother.) Other ensemble members deftly shifting in and out of supporting character roles are Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi and Liz Wisan.
Steinem brings the play’s impassioned views up to date, including opposition to Trump and the ongoing threats to a woman’s right to abortion. In the course of the play Steinem discusses how she fought on the abortion issue without mentioning her own abortion, but finally realized that she should also speak about her experience. The entire play is fueled by the charm of Lahti’s candid performance, and the production adds up to a huge activist rally.
On the night I attended this was reinforced in the post-play discussion that is regularly scheduled with a guest. Out walked the real Gloria Steinem to lead it, and a litany of militant comments came from those in the crowd given mikes to amplify what they had to say. The chat session, at moments like a revival meeting, was frequently interrupted by applause. At the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street. For tickets by phone: 1-800-982-2787. Reviewed November 9, 2018.