The “Truth in Titles” award this week must go to Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life (★★☆☆☆), which just opened in a new production at Theater J.
Indeed, the breezy stage bio of Gloria Steinem proves more inclined to chronicle the feminist icon’s lifetime of accomplishments and influence than to risk much by probing the surely complicated contours of Gloria: The Person.
Her story, and herstory, are presented in a brightly paced stream of adoring scenes from a life lived large, starring and narrated by Gloria (Susan Lynskey), lead interlocutor among a diverse ensemble of women enacting the drama.
But drama takes a backseat to laying down uplifting lessons on landmarks in the women’s movement, and pioneers like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Wilma Mankiller, and Bella Abzug. Mann’s script doesn’t plot arcs of adversity, perseverance, and triumph so much as it catalogs obstacles Steinem faced, then shows through what act of courage or ingenuity she and/or her comrades overcame said obstacles.
The cast even sings “We Shall Overcome,” exuberantly adding song to the production’s mix of performance, discussion, and projections of photos and archival footage onto Paige Hathaway’s symposium-style set.
For the play’s second act, the entire cast leads the audience in a 15-minute talking circle to share thoughts, questions, and experiences inspired by the play. As Gloria reminds us, “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle.”
The company plans that each night during the show’s run, a prominent figure in D.C. politics or media will kick off the talking circle by sharing their perspectives on the women’s movement and various subjects of the play.
On press night, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was the special guest, helping to break the ice for what turned out to be a moving, intimate chat among strangers about the sense of community and sisterhood evoked in the play’s portrayal of the movement.
Certainly as compelling as any part of the scripted performance, the talking circle is where the evening’s purpose seemed fulfilled. On another night, with another audience, the outcome won’t be exactly the same — but the performers will have to be at least as inspiring every time to have any hopes of sending the second act forum aloft.
Director Holly Twyford’s energetic cast appears up to the task, led by Lynskey offering a jovial, sharp-witted Steinem, dressed in recognizable ’70s garb: bellbottoms, Aviator shades, her long auburn hair parted by two blonde streaks. Vintage Steinem speaks directly to us in the here and now, a construct that allows her an awareness of the revolutionary strides made by those whose civil rights she’s fought for: women, Black people, the LGBTQ community.
It also opens the floor for influential women from throughout Steinem’s lifetime to have their say on the struggle, eliciting standout turns from Mani Yangilmau as activist Mankiller and Debora Crabbe as Ms. magazine co-founder Pitman Hughes, and Sherri L. Edelen, wonderfully capturing Abzug’s high-volume charisma. The entire ensemble ably essays a variety of roles, though none of the scenes delves too emotionally deep. Again, the theme of these stories is how women banded together to overcome together.
And the strength and moxie of these firebrands is written into the show’s scenic decoration, with the walls of the set and the auditorium papered with printed quotes from feminists across the ages.
Gloria: A Life aims to channel that wealth of insight through Steinem and the chronology of her distinguished life, implying, “Here’s who she is, here’s what she did — now, who are you, and what are you going to do?” It’s a heartening message that one wishes were delivered within the parameters of meatier drama.
Gloria: A Life runs through April 2 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $39 to $85. Call 202-777-3210, or visit www.theaterj.org.
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