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Gloria - A Life

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Cast of Gloria. Photo: Joan Marcus

                                       By Fern Siegel

Gloria Steinem is probably the most recognizable feminist in America. Her impact on politics and culture is profound. So it’s only fitting that her remarkable life be transformed into a play. After all, her story parallels the dramatic fight for women’s rights.

The poignant and inspiring Gloria, A Life, now at the Daryl Roth Theater, chronicles Steinem’s biography and underscores her critical participation in second-wave feminism. Steinem embodies the battle cry of the movement she helped lead: “The personal is political.” 

And there is little in her life — personal or professional — that is not dictated by sexual politics. Steinem came of age at a time when women’s choices were restricted, abortion was illegal and dangerous and sexual harassment commonplace. (“It wasn’t called sexual harassment, it was called life,” she remembers.)

In Gloria, A Life, Christine Lahti skillfully captures Steinem’s essence, without devolving into caricature. Smart and talented, her political consciousness is raised in the 1960s and ’70s. Her activism, aided by women such as Flo Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Bella Abzug, among others, sparks a revolution in women’s rights.

But her public triumphs often masked the personal pain of a complicated woman.

Written by Emily Mann, the play neatly utilizes family photos, news and TV coverage to expose a sexist America, while positing Steinem as a conduit for something larger than herself. Enamored of her glamorous looks, the media seizes on her as a potent symbol for feminism — and a target for outrage. A grassroots campaigner who spent much of her life on the road lecturing and organizing, Gloria commingles her compelling story with the zeitgeist.

And it is eye opening.

But as the play sensitively reveals, behind the seemingly unflappable Steinem, lay a Dickensian childhood.

Born in 1934, she spent the first few years of her life in a trailer. Her father, an itinerant antiques dealer, was financially unreliable. Her mother had to choose between career and marriage, leading in part, to a nervous breakdown. Once her parents divorced, 11-year-old Gloria was left in charge of a mentally ill mother.

That Steinem makes it to Smith College and New York, determined to be a political journalist, is impressive. Indeed, as she once remarked: “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” 

Refusing to be stuck in the ghetto of “women’s articles,” she fought to cover politics and serious issues. Eventually, through sheer grit and vision, she became a cofounder of New York and Ms. Magazines; the latter’s first issue, despite all predictions by men eager to see it fail, sold out in eight days!

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Christine Lahti and Fedna Jacquet. Photo: Joan Marcus

Act one focuses on Steinem’s personal life and activism. Act two is a talking circle, 15 to 20 minutes, in which the audience is asked to reflect on the themes of the play.

Reconfiguring the Daryl Roth as a theater in the round enhances the play’s intimacy, providing a you-are-there feel. Deftly directed by Tony-winner Diane Paulus, Gloria is perfectly paced and heartfelt. Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi and Liz Wisan comprise an excellent ensemble.

Mann’s play is also a much-needed history lesson, presented as upbeat and hopeful. This isn’t a rant; it’s an important examination of a movement that changed American history and the lives of millions. “I’m not just a dreamer, I’m a hopeaholic,” Steinem admits. Five decades on, she continues to champion social justice.

Gloria is a tribute to a remarkable woman and a searing reminder of how precarious hard-won rights can be. It should be required viewing for everyone.


Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th St., New York, NY (Through March 31, 2019)


Running time: 2 hours, no intermission.