Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Gloria: A Life
At first glance, Ms. Steinem, publisher of the groundbreaking Ms. magazine, does not seem like a natural choice for onstage theatrics. Her occasional appearances in the media have always been thoughtful and serious–and her personal life almost entirely un-crowded with incident, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Still, Emily Mann's 90-minute script finds the magic in the movement, as Ms. Steinem stands up for equal rights and against an army of patriarchal foes. In the 1960s and '70s, long before social media, she weathered a steady storm of rebuke from sneering men and venomous women alike. And the anguish and frustration (particularly among her followers) is palpable in this retelling.
Seven actresses, including the excellent Jenni Ryan in the title role, burn brighter by the minute, with idealism and determination, against their presumed roles as wives and mothers. The post-war homemaker stereotype is established in the beginning, with a whimsical parade of the implements of domestic life. And, in spite of her iron-clad commitment to escape someone else's "pursuit of happiness," Ms. Steinem finally displays serious doubts near the end. But the quiet emotional payoff is that her life-long activism, combined with sincerity and constancy, has drawn a circle of devoted friends around her, like Wilma Mankiller (mystical, as played by Lizi Watt), the chief of the Cherokee Nation. Ms. Watt's is one of the many memorable performances in this rich little show.
So what Ms. Steinem may lack in personal pizazz is more than made up for by the joyful rebellion of her fellow feminists and by the sometimes shocking onslaughts from an array of her attackers: all caught-up in the madness of the 1960s and beyond. It doesn't hurt that all of them are swept up in a hundred clever period costume pieces as well, supplied by Michele Friedman Siler.
Sarah Gene Dowling adds lots of sparkle and snap as New York lawmaker Bella Abzug, and pathos as Steinem's troubled mother, who really was stuck at home, till it drove her crazy. And because Ms. Steinem always appears to be so self-contained (she'll be 90 next year), we are left to infer a secret inner torment in the soul of her mother's daughter. It's a psychological profile that is nearly as difficult to figure out as advanced algebra. And we are mildly surprised (near the end) to hear her say that "rage can be an energy cell" for a protest movement. Because that rage is almost as completely invisible on stage as it is in Ms. Steinem's own public life. Gloria: A Life is more of a love-fest of hopeful, like-minded feminists, constantly crashing into a "Father Knows Best" mindset, with consistently nasty results.
The story brings us up to about 2017, with a prescient warning that the anti-choice movement is always the first step in the march to authoritarianism. But the fire in the hearts of her followers seems unquenchable. Kayla Ailee Bush makes for a funny Larry King during a phone-in show that turns ugly, and elsewhere Ms. Bush is compelling as the activist Dorothy Pittman Hughes.
Chrissie Watkins shows us how to stand up and fight as Gloria's campus-rally partner Florence Kennedy. Carmen Cecilia Retzer is moving as a woman testifying before U.S. Congress about all the added secrecy and shame surrounding abortion before Roe v. Wade. And Summer Baer is very funny as a demanding Slavic choreographer at the Playboy Club in 1963. All members of the supporting cast play a long list of unique and interesting characters under the direction of Ms. Hunter.
For the record, Ms. Ryan stepped into the role as a last-minute replacement, with only a week's preparation. And she is remarkably tenacious, creating an indelible stamp for her character on opening night. She carried a rolled-up script in her hand, but only glanced at it a few times in the 90-minute performance, which requires her to be on stage almost the entire time. I've done this three times myself, decades ago, though I was stepping into much smaller roles. Still, in each case, it was a mind-bending experience. Bravo, Ms. Ryan.
Gloria: A Life runs through June 18, 2023, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Couer MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.newjewishtheatre.org