Gloria Steinem famously quipped that the examined life is not worth living. Playwright and director Emily Mann takes that credo a touch too seriously in Gloria: A Life, her polished but facile stage biography of the legendary journalist and trailblazing feminist, now playing at McCarter Theatre Center.
The intellect, persona, and heart
Starring two-time Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell as Steinem—in Jessica Jahn’s sleek costumes and a pair of those trademark aviator sunglasses, she’s a dead ringer for the genuine article—Mann's play hits all the familiar milestones of Steinem’s extraordinary (and ongoing) public life. Highlights include her famous undercover exposé of working conditions at the original Playboy Club (“an assignment that has haunted my entire life,” she vocalizes); the founding of Ms. Magazine as a home for woman-centered journalism; and her recent visibility as a face of the 2017 Women’s March in reaction to President Trump’s election.
On a more personal level, the script also explores the tragic life of Steinem’s mother, Ruth—a journalist herself, who gave up her career to raise a family and suffered greatly for the choice—and her brief but happy late-in-life marriage to the South African activist David Bale. These moments are often the most compelling, perhaps because they pierce through Steinem’s carefully crafted public persona and get to the heart of a woman who pulled herself up from a hardscrabble Midwestern childhood and into the highest rank of public intellectualism.
A noble exercise
Yet at all points, Mann largely skims the surface of Steinem’s biography, and the result can often feel like the live narration of a Wikipedia article. Even when she presents Gloria the woman rather than Gloria the symbol, the storytelling remains slickly manicured. And while Steinem is certainly someone who deserves admiration, Mann’s portrait doesn’t work hard enough to avoid hagiography. In showing the ways in which Steinem erred, she still leads with a sense of her nobility.
The play itself is mostly a noble exercise, though, and I appreciate its honest foregrounding of intersectional feminism. Often the stories of Steinem’s compatriots of color—like the child-welfare advocate Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the late lawyer-turned-activist Florynce Kennedy—emerge with a depth that’s missing from the main narrative. Under Mann’s direction, the large and diverse supporting cast craft individuated portraits and deserve recognition. They are Gabrielle Beckford, Mierka Girten (a standout in her scenes as Ruth Steinem), Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers, and Eunice Wong.
Finding the firebrand
Surprisingly, the least successful performance comes from McDonnell. Her specific vocal cadence has nothing in common with Steinem, but playing a living character involves more than mimicry, and in terms of suggesting Steinem’s inner life, she remains curiously flat. She also overuses crying as a way to signal myriad emotions, and is slightly too beatific to truly suggest her subject’s firebrand nature.
The overall narrative play, however formulaic, generated a fair amount of goodwill in me—and clearly spoke to the audience, many of whom leapt to their feet at the curtain call. Most of my goodwill dissipated when, in the last fifteen minutes, the drama devolved into an actual talking circle, where audience members are invited to tell their stories (and, it tacitly seemed, to praise the production). The entire effect felt slightly coercive—especially when, at the performance I attended, the one critical audience comment about Steinem’s lack of focus on childcare as a feminist issue was quickly quashed.
A play about a great public figure doesn’t need gimmickry. But it does need more than what Mann brings to the stage.
What, When, Where
Gloria: A Life. Written and directed by Emily Mann. Through October 6, 2019, at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, New Jersey. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.
McCarter Theatre Center is a barrier-free building, with accessible seating and restrooms. There will be an open-captioned performance of Gloria: A Life on Saturday, September 28 at 2pm, and an audio-described and ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, October 5 at 2pm.