Documentary plays breathe life into historic events by bringing us close to individuals who bore witness. Having that personal connection shifts the emphasis from abstract names and dates to those recognizable emotions and experiences we can connect with — uncertainty, joy, disappointment, and success.
In “Gloria: A Life,” that individual is the inspiring Gloria Steinem, journalist, author, editor, and tireless advocate for women’s rights. More than simply a witness, Steinem is a hero and a role model whose participation in the women’s movement over the past half century helped provide mainstream visibility and legitimacy to activists dismissed simply as frivolous or “man-haters.”
“Gloria: A Life” uses Steinem’s autobiography “My Life on the Road” as a starting point. Playwright Emily Mann takes a mostly linear approach to the storytelling, including Steinem’s peripatetic youth with a father who loved to be on the road and a broken mother whose career as a journalist ended with a nervous breakdown.
Steinem is portrayed here by Patricia Kalember. Dressed in her trademark aviator frames, black pants, silver buckle belt, and black sweater, she provides a “first-person” narration of Steinem’s story. We trace her early years as a struggling freelance writer in an era when female journalists were relegated to the “women’s pages,” and her light bulb moment when she witnesses women giving each other the courage to stand up and demand to be treated as equals.
This might feel like a history lecture, were it not for Diane Paulus’s deft direction and Mann’s incorporation of deeply moving stories of the other feminists who inspired, mentored, and motivated Steinem. The extraordinary grassroots efforts of such women as New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, and Wilma Mankiller have largely become lost, and the opportunity to revive their stories and hear their voices in this format is intriguing, inspiring, and illuminating.
It is fair to say, however, there is a tension in the play between our desire to know more about the woman Gloria and the movement in which she plays such a central role. Every time Steinem begins to reveal a bit of uncertainty (her difficulty recovering from a personal attack from a caller on the “Larry King Show”) or tragedy (the death of her husband after only three years of marriage), she deftly steers the conversation back to the needs of other women, and we never quite glimpse what’s truly behind those aviator glasses.
An ensemble of six actors — Gabrielle Beckford, Joanna Glushak, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers, and Eunice Wong — portray the myriad characters Steinem encounters along her path, from writers Saul Bellow and Gay Talese to the Bunny Mother at the Playboy Club, cab drivers, and readers of Ms. magazine. As Gloria remembers her difficulty connecting to her mother, Ruth, as a woman who gave up her profession as a journalist, Ruth (a breathtaking Glushak) shows her young daughter how to fold a piece of paper to make it easy for a reporter to hold and take notes. The gesture communicates a frustration and fragility that is heartbreaking.
But the documentary film footage integrated into the play is most successful at bringing us up-close-and-personal to the unrelenting condescension and outright hostility the women’s movement confronted. The most striking footage, for this writer, was a string of recent clips featuring young women from around the world speaking out about gun violence, reproductive rights, violence against women, and climate change.
If the first half of the evening serves as a reminder of what’s come before, the second half is an opportunity to listen and plan for what comes next. The first act ends with Kalember introducing herself and inviting the audience to stay for the second act, “a talking circle” in which individuals can share their own stories. A different guest leads the conversation at each performance, and Thursday night it was none other than Steinem herself. As audience members told stories or asked questions, Steinem was extraordinarily patient, generous, encouraging, funny, and wise. Rather than feel like a forum for oversharing, the talking circle was an opportunity to hear the diversity of voices all around us and a reminder to make time to listen.
“We each know things the other needs,” Steinem said as the evening ended. “When we speak up, we know we’re not crazy, and we’re not alone.” “Gloria: A Life” offers an extraordinary glimpse of who we are, how far we’ve come, and how much farther we still need to go.
This review has been updated to change an erroneous description of how Steinem’s mother’s career in journalism ended.
GLORIA: A LIFE
Written by Emily Mann. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by American Repertory Theater in association with the McCarter Theatre Center and Darryl Roth. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through March 1. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org