Entertainment » Theatre

'Gloria: A Life' Is About All of Us

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 4, 2020
Eunice Wong and Patricia Kalember in "Gloria: A Life"
Eunice Wong and Patricia Kalember in "Gloria: A Life"  (Source:APrioriPhotography.com)

American Repertory Theatre's production of "Gloria: A Life" is littered with dualities. Or, maybe a better way of putting that is to say that many aspects of the show are on two divergent paths. It may not seem it at first, but I think it's this divided spirit of the production that gives it the kick it needs and ultimately makes it worth seeing.

The play opens with its subject, Gloria Steinem (a fantastic Patricia Kalember), standing center stage giving the reasoning behind the aviator sunglasses that are often framing her face. She explains that they're a shield, a comment which gives the hint that we'll be watching our protagonist go into battle.

But this moment also signifies that we'll be dealing with Gloria Steinem - the image, the icon, the mythical figure in American culture. Since the early '70s the woman has been one of the key faces of second wave feminism, (probably only Betty Friedan is more closely tied), and it seems that pro or con, everybody, everybody, everybody has an opinion on Gloria Steinem. For individuals who didn't live through that time period, (such as myself), approaching her is something akin to approaching the Queen of England. There's so much history bound up with the figure that the you risk missing the woman underneath.

Call ART's production a corrective, then. It looks to crack open the icon and bring us all into the fold. Consider the tagline for the production, "History. Her Story. Our Story." It's not about her, it's about all of us.

Well... alright, so it's mostly about her, at the beginning at least. ART's production comes at the audience in two parts. Act One is a straight biography of Steinem, covering her life from when she began working as a journalist in the 1960s up until more or less the present day with a particular focus place on the development of the women's movement in the 1970s. Kalember as Steinem narrates the action as an ensemble of actresses swirl around her, stepping in to play those in her orbit. We dive into many of the more legendary moments of her life from her time undercover as a waitress at the Playboy Club to a 1990 Larry King interview when a female caller told Steinem she should rot in hell.

The cast of "Gloria: A Life"  (Source:APrioriPhotography.com)

Act Two of "Gloria" belongs to us, we the people. Time is carved out for the audience to participate in a talking circle where individuals can highlight thoughts and feelings the production brought up, as well bring attention to any real life (i.e., outside the theater), political organizations, causes, demonstrations that might be going on. It's an opportunity to share personal narratives in a public way and as Steinem says, it's in this sharing and recognizing ourselves in others that we realize we're not crazy, it's the system that is.

How do we respond to these two acts? Well, it's something that shifts as the play goes on. In the biography section of the piece, playwright Emily Mann's script can't help from feeling a bit by-the-numbers in its approach. It moves along beat by beat, checking off events as it goes. Director Diane Paulus gets the action zipping along in a fluid manner from event to event, keeping the flow of information coming but not really letting us feel the moment. Something happens and we're carted off to what's next. Given how much history the play is trying to cover, I understand why they took this approach, but it does leave you wishing for a way into the character that was as adventurous as its subject.

Certain moments end up coming off as a bit programmatic, (perhaps just a necessary evil of the genre). Steinem gets called "this year's pretty lady" by her reporter peers at an event or gets mistaken for a call girl because she's a woman alone in the lobby of a hotel and, on cue, we all chuckle at the outdated sexism.

After that Larry King interview, Steinem experiences crisis of confidence late at night in a hotel room and you feel we're all expected to leap from our seats yelling "No! No! You are making a change!"

Part of what saves it, though, is the plain and simple fact that the woman has had a hell of a life. Who cares if we're getting the straightforward story? You forgive these narrative quick cuts and instead get enraptured by what's unfolding. It's fascinating to watch her grow into the leader she becomes.

Gloria Steinem and Patricia Kalember in the second act of "Gloria: A Life"  (Source:A.R.T. Marketing)

At the same time, it's gratifying to see Mann's script take an inclusive approach to its storytelling. It's not looking to sell us the story that Saint Steinem descended from the heavens fully-formed to lead the rest of us into the promised land of equality. There are many other activists from that period who provided guidance and fought alongside her. Steinem even notes at one point that it's black women who taught her how to be a feminist, (case in point, the activist Dorothy Pitman, who you might recognize as the woman standing beside Steinem in that iconic photo where they have their fists raised in salute).

This is the paradox that the show is always wrestling with. On the one hand, the play wants to dismantle the idea of Steinem as a superhuman. She's someone who put her head down and put in the work. At the same time, the show only works because she is so iconic and means so much to people.

As Steinem, Patricia Kalember turns in a performance that keeps the whole engine of the production running smoothly. While she nails the look of Steinem, (helped in no small part by Jessica Jahn's wonderful costume design), she never really sets about creating a recognizable impression. Listen to any interview with the real Steinem and you'll hear that she speaks in a low voice that moves at its own pace and pulls you in while radiating warmth and intelligence. Given that Kalember's role has her playing conductor for the evening, (and she's gotta keep this thing moving), it probably would have been disastrous to the show's pace for her to go the imitation route. But she nails the spirit and energy behind her real-life counterpart. She's well-aided by the rest of the ensemble who fill in the spaces around our protagonist with a sense of joy for what they're doing.

But as good as the cast is, it's ironically when they step back for Act Two that the production really springs to life. You can feel the temperature in the room changing as the talking circle begins. For the performance I saw, it may have had something to do with the fact that Steinem herself appeared to act as moderator. But I'd bet cold hard cash that the energy would have been there even if she wasn't. There is something about even the myth of this woman that unlocks people and makes them eager to engage. They reach down into places they don't normally access and pull up what they find.

I won't waste time recounting what came up at the opening night talking circle, (it's going to be different for each performance anyway), but it's a beautiful thing to watch. We're no longer a gathering of people. We're a community admitting that we're all in this together, and it feels like we reach that conclusion in an honest way.

On the way out of the theater, I ran into a friend who had just seen the show. After checking in to see what he thought, I turned to the woman he had brought along as his date and asked her if she had enjoyed the show. She hesitated and said, "Well...." in that way that signified that she didn't want to commit to an answer. I came at the question another way: "Well, were you engaged with it?" At this, her eyes lit up and she began nodding vigorously, saying, "Oh yes, absolutely."

I suspect that this is the kind of response that "Gloria: A Life" is going to get. I also suspect that if I had called up my friend's date the next day, she'd be a little more eager to admit that yes, she enjoyed the play. I think it is enjoyable. But I think that first and foremost, it engages you as a human being. The tag line ends up being right. It is our story.

"Gloria: A Life" continues through March 1 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

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