It’s the top of the show. The audience has just witnessed a series of projections move through on a big screen – all depicting various moments in Gloria Steinem’s life from protests to major speeches and interviews. As soon as the video ends, the lights come up on stage to present Gloria Steinem (Christine Lahti), ready in her classic aviator sunglasses to welcome the audience to her show. The audience surrounds her in this theatre-in-the-round space, and cheers as she walks to the center of the room to continue her welcome:
“Here’s the good news: we are all in this room together, and not alone on our computers or cell phones!
The Daryl Roth Theatre erupts with laughter at that, and this writer will admit that she did as well. We are in the midst of a pandemic, and ironically, the only way any of us can enjoy a theatrical experience in this moment is through a computer screen. However, we are also pleasantly surprised to find that a virtual performance has never felt more inclusive, and this 2018 production certainly felt immediate.
PBS Great Peformances Presents Gloria: A Life
As the audience laughs and cheers at the cell phone joke, an ensemble of six women comes out to surround Gloria as she continues:
“Humans are communal animals, meant to be sitting around camp fires, telling our stories, learning from each other. We have been doing it for millennia. In fact, I would say, being able to tell your story and listening to each other’s stories is the sure-fire path out because you realize you’re not crazy. The system is crazy, and you’re not alone.”
The scene itself is a striking example of community. Gloria breaks the fourth wall from the moment she begins the show. Gloria: A Life, written by Emily Mann and directed by Diane Paulus, explores Gloria’s journey to activism, covering all of the personal and political road bumps along the way from 1934 to present. The ensemble plays all of the characters along that activism trail – from political figures to the other bunnies when Gloria completes her famous undercover piece, I Was a Playboy Bunny. With all of the moving parts in Mann’s play, Gloria’s opening is helpful in offering a context and preparing the audience for that which they are about to see.
More though, the scene also carries a different kind of significance in this particular moment.
We are not only in the midst of a pandemic, but this country is also being forced to examine the faults in its very structure. This country is more isolated than ever in so many ways, but Gloria reminds all involved that we are not alone. Human nature connects us all, and perhaps now, there is even more need to sit back and listen to those who need to tell their story.
Deeply Heartfelt Performance
Mann’s play covers a large range of historical territory, and asks that Gloria weave in and out of the storytelling as not only a participant in the displayed events, but also as a narrator to carry us from moment to moment. Lahti walks this line seamlessly, maintaining a constant rapport with the audience. At various points Lahti might turn to someone in the middle of a scene and offer a joke, or commentary on how attitudes towards women have yet to see change. Paulus and Lahti collaborate here to build an intimate atmosphere that aids the storytelling. The audience feels like an eighth character, in this director’s view. Lahti’s charismatic approach manages to extend past those in the room and into the virtual audience watching this streaming link.
Lahti’s comedic timing in the lighter moments helps ease us into those that are harder to swallow. Those familiar with Gloria’s life might know that it has been far from easy. While she has seen her fair share of wins, there have also been a number of darker moments where she felt she might have nowhere else to turn.
One such moment is when Gloria is 22-years-old, and finds herself in need of an abortion. It is 1956, and those procedures are quite difficult to legally or safely come by. When she finds that a doctor is willing to complete the procedure in London under the excuse that the baby is harmful to the mother, a scared and lonely Gloria travels across the ocean.
The stage is empty except for Lahti and her doctor in the middle of the space. He takes a step back so he can look her in the eye when he says that his only condition for completing the abortion is that:
“You will do what you want to do with your life.”
Paulus’ simple staging rids the room of any distractions, inviting us to lean in and hear the true, heavy meaning of the doctor’s words. In 1956, a male doctor was willing to put his own career on the line to help women in need. Mann utilizes this moment to thank Dr. John Sharp for his risk, and the intimate relationship with the audience allows everyone in the room to share in Gloria’s gratitude.
Relevant and deeply personal, Gloria: A Life could not have picked a better time for a comeback. In this moment of ambiguity and uncertainty, Mann reminds us of the importance of listening, and noticing the connections that we all share as human beings who have the capacity to transform and survive.
Available through Streaming through July 24, 2020
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.