Which American women have been pioneers and exerted enduring influence during the last century? Such profiles of courage as Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and Oprah Winfrey easily come to mind. If one were asked to select one such woman, though, Gloria Steinem would not be only a remarkable choice, but also an amazingly ongoing presence.
Turning 86 next month, the activist, writer, thinker, and founder of Ms. magazine continues to make moral waves as an indomitable spokeswoman for full financial equality and respect for women. Now Emily Mann has brought her stirring Off-Broadway stage portrait “Gloria: A Life” – at once both properly outspoken and provocative – to the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge under the expert guidance of American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus.
The tight A.R.T. all-female septet – with Patricia Kalember reprising her New York performance in the title role – should fire up audiences and serve as a clarion call to action for men as well as women.
As structured at the Loeb, the Paulus staging has theatergoers sitting in two large sections: on large pillows and what seem to be beanbags as well as regular seats around the space where Mann’s informative if sometimes rather overly busy play chronicles Steinem’s richly evolving life.
With the valuable assistance of Elaine J. McCarthy’s strong projection design, “Gloria” effectively moves through Steinem’s story. Theatergoers learn of her parents’ divorce when she was 10 years old. Young Gloria effectively helped her mother cope with emotional troubles. Her Jewish paternal grandmother would save many relatives from the horrors of the Holocaust.
Mann’s play includes details of Steinem’s studies at Smith College, a brief stint as a Playboy bunny, her impact as a journalist and publisher of the singularly influential Ms. magazine, her activism in solidarity with congresswomen Chisholm and Abzug, her resolute opposition to such far-right leaders as Phyllis Schlafly, and her unequivocal support of LGBTQ rights.
Kalember and six ensemble actresses make Steinem’s odyssey vivid and heartfelt. Kalember captures Gloria’s clarity, directness, and emotional depth in a performance both commanding and totally convincing. Joanna Glushak arrestingly catches the angst of Gloria’s mother as well as the fire of Abzug, who serves as a major mentor of Steinem. The remainder of the ensemble works very comfortably as activist sisters, particularly as they protest against corporate injustice toward women.
A “circle of meeting” follows every performance of the play. Some local activists may feel that this combination of discussion and dialogue is valuable to all theatergoers. Still, audience members will have to judge for themselves whether this 20- to 30-minute follow-up truly connects them to the play.
“Gloria” may not as yet be a great play. Even so, Mann has paid timely tribute to a great woman and her continuing important work.
“Gloria: A Life” by the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, runs through March 1. For tickets, call 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org.