Gloria: A Life illumines an era then little appreciated, now largely forgotten

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

The McCarter Theatre Center of Princeton, NJ, is now presenting Gloria: A Life at its Berlind Theatre until October 6, 2019. Lincoln Center, Daryl Roth, and American Repertory Theater at Harvard University have all had a hand in bringing Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life to the McCarter.

This is Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann’s 30th and final season at the helm of the McCarter. Gloria: A Life is restaged for the McCarter by its playwright Emily Mann.

Gloria Steinem (born March 25, 1934) is at 85, a political activist, largely known for her work in the American Feminist Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as co-founder of Ms. Magazine, and recognized with many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Gloria: A Life is a retelling of her life with a tour-de-force performance by stage, screen, and television actress Mary McDonnell as Gloria Steinem. McDonnell is supported by several notable actresses who bring much life to the largely didactic story. They are Gabrielle Beckford, Mierka Girten, a wonderfully good and versatile Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers, and Eunice Wong. The Berlind has been reconfigured into a theatre-in-the-round, with Persian carpets and matching floor cushions and fabric-covered storage units, a few occasional tables stacked with books, and little else.

Playwright Mann set herself a daunting assignment: how to tell both a life of a living person while also reviving an era many now see as ancient history. Indeed, much of what happened in the play happened nearly 50 years ago. To her credit, Mann included Steinem’s troubled childhood, her dysfunctional family, her struggles with being a journalist, feminist, and wage-earner without the support of a husband at a time when a woman without a husband was considered to be an incomplete woman. We learn of Steinem’s personal issues, such as having an apartment but never living in it. The moving boxes remained unpacked for 30 years. Her short marriage to David Bale (actor Christian Bale’s father) in 2000, only to have him die three years later. Other emotionally telling moments in the play were when Steinem trusted her audience. In one instance, an episode with Larry King Live had Steinem trapped on camera while a woman caller tore her apart. Some of Steinem’s harshest critics were women, while some of her colleagues from whom she drew inspiration were women. An excellent tribute to Bella Abzug, noted Congresswoman, lawyer, and activist from New York City served to remind many of us of a certain age and to educate those in the audience under 40 that the Feminist Movement took many women many years of hard work to achieve.

Gloria: A Life is ideally suited as a production for high schools and outreach education. It features a short unit lesson on the many feminists of the time and quotes from their speeches and writings to add intellectual rigor to first-person accounts. The letters that readers of the new Ms. Magazine sent were poignantly acted out by the supporting cast.

Gloria: A Life is two hours in length, with no intermission. The final 15 minutes is a talkback of sorts, called here a caucus, harking back to the Indigenous Peoples’ word for discussion in a circle. Several women spoke. This was nowhere for sissies. Two women shared that they were rape victims; another spoke of escaping abuse by fighting back. Another woman mentioned that her daughter recently graduated from college needed to hear about her history. Applause! (Has a college degree replaced snagging a husband?)  One woman said that she was heartened to see that old, white men stayed for the discussion. More applause, even from many of the same accused old, white men. Many of these old, white men attended Pride Night held this evening with some of the women. Once in a production run of a play, the McCarter has an LGBT social mixer before the performance. Although much reduced in scope from previous years, it is a truly worthwhile tradition the McCarter should continue.

Gloria: A Life should be seen by every woman who grew up in the United States 80, 50, or 20 years ago. It is invaluable as a piece of history framed by a life.

The McCarter has a full season of concerts, plays, and much more. Next on stage will be the highly-anticipated production of Frankenstein, October 15-November 3. LGBT Pride Night for Frankenstein will be October 24. For information about all attractions, visit  .

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