“I’m Mary, welcome to Act 2,” says Mary McDonnell at the start of the second part of “Gloria: A Life,” which is now being presented at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
McDonnell, who played journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem in Act 1, has a different role here: There is no acting in Act 2. It is, instead, a 15-minute “talking circle” in which audience members get to speak about what they’ve just seen and how it applies to their lives. There was a special guest in the audience the night I saw the play: Tracy K. Smith, former poet laureate of the United States and a current Princeton University professor (as well as the chair of the university’s Lewis Center for the Arts), shared some thoughts first. Then other audience members spoke, and really did add a lot to the evening, underscoring the urgency of Steinem’s life work by emotionally discussing how much it applies to their own lives.
Of course, the evening’s second part could have just been presented as a post-show talking circle. But calling it Act 2 was a very Steinemesque move, questioning the traditional way of doing things, emphasizing that everyone has a story to tell, and calling for those who are not usually given the opportunity to speak to do so.
“We’re meant to be sitting around campfires, telling our stories,” said McDonnell, as Steinem, earlier in the evening, after praising audience members for being there and not being at home, on their computers.
“All of our stories matter,” she said later.
Emily Mann, who is the McCarter Theatre Center’s artistic director, wrote “Gloria: A Life,” which debuted last year off-Broadway with direction by Diane Paulus. Mann “restaged” it for the McCarter, according to the program. (“Gloria” kicks off Mann’s 30th and final season at McCarter’s artistic director, by the way.)
Mann and scenic designer Amy C. Rubin undertook an impressive transformation of the Berlind Theatre, adding seven rows of bleacher seating behind the stage, with pillows to make those sitting there more comfortable and add to the homeyness of the atmosphere. Some audience members sit on the stage and are occasionally asked to join in the action. The stage itself is covered with rugs, and has some small tables and stacks of books, but no traditional set. The idea is to make the theater seem like a big living room, and it works.
There is a loose, informal feel to Act 1, too. McDonnell’s Steinem is earnest and disarmingly honest, and concerned not just with telling her own story, but making a difference in the present. She talks about the Me Too Movement and says the country is now facing “a crisis like we’ve never known.” But she takes solace in the record number of women now in Congress, and says she’s a “hopeaholic.”
Act 1 tells her story in more or less chronological order, starting with her childhood in working class Toledo, her time at Smith College in Massachusetts, her move to New York to become a political journalist, her difficult times there as a woman in a male-dominated industry, the founding of Ms. magazine and her ascendance to the status of feminist icon. Vintage photos and videos add historical flavor.
Six actresses (Patrena Murray, Brenda Withers, Gabrielle Beckford, Miera Girten, Erika Stone and Eunice Wong) play a variety of characters, including Steinem allies such as Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug and Wilma Mankiller. Girten nearly steals the show in a few scenes where she plays the brash, outspoken, irrepressible Abzug.
Steinem’s relationships with her mother and her late-in-life husband David Bale do figure into the narrative. But the emphasis is definitely on her finding her purpose as an activist, and then helping to change world.
Steinem is now 85, still active and as radical as ever. I’m glad she lived long enough to see her work acknowledged in this way.
“Gloria: A Life” runs at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Oct. 6. Visit mccarter.org.
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