Gloria Steinem’s influential legacy is on terrifically insightful display at the Loft Theatre courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company’s timely regional premiere of Emily Mann’s enlightening, thought-provoking and relevant 2018 one-act drama Gloria: A Life.
Chronicling the 85-year-old Steinem from her humble beginnings in Toledo, Ohio to her currently impactful stances on advocacy and equality, Gloria: A Life predominately seeks to put to rest preconceived notions about who she is and what she continues to fight for. It’s no surprise her undercover stint as a Playboy Bunny, co-founding of Ms. magazine and definitive impact as leader of the feminist movement typically grabbed the headlines over the decades. However, Mann astutely goes beyond the history and controversy to draw a deeper, relatable portrait of this strong woman greatly motivated by passionate African-American women such as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, and Angela Davis who not only dreamed of being a Rockette but was actually reticent to embrace the limelight of activism. In fact, even as she received her share of help and hell at the dawn and height of the feminist movement, she remained haunted by “the unlived life” of her insecure yet talented mother trapped in an unfulfilling marriage. Still, this self-described “hope-aholic” believed in the necessity of people-building, reminding everyone of all backgrounds of their value and self-worth in order to change the world. After all, “don’t agonize – organize” is a fundamental principle applying as significantly to men as it does to women.
Providing breezy transitions while expansively using the Loft space to the fullest from the rear of the audience to every corner of the stage, director Marya Spring Cordes briskly guides an outstanding, diverse seven-member female cast through various aspects of Steinem’s complex journey. The personable, statuesque Jennifer Johansen winningly embodies the titular role with commanding confidence, narrating the proceedings with elegance, wit and reflective sincerity. The remaining members vividly portray multiple roles: Burgess Byrd brings feisty joy to Hughes and Kennedy and gentle reverence to Coretta Scott King; Sherman Fracher zestfully captures New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug; Rae Buchanan is heartbreaking as Steinem’s mother; Andréa Morales, memorable in the Human Race’s Hail, Mary! and The Full Monty as well as Magnolia Theatre Company’s Parallel Lives and Gidion’s Knot, displays her inherent versatility throughout; Eileen Earnest equally convinces as a spunky kid enamored with Steinem and a prickly mother despising her; and Aurea Tomeski gracefully shines with warm wisdom as Wilma Mankiller, Steinem’s friend, mentor, mother figure, and the first contemporary female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
In addition to John Riechers’ exceptional projections – heightening this educational experience with archival footage encompassing cutesy 1950s commercials, eye-rolling Harry Reasoner and Richard Nixon commentary, and a photo of the 127 women currently serving in the United States Congress – the first-rate production team includes set designer Tamara L. Honesty, costumer Ayn Kaethchen, lighting designer John Rensel, sound designer Jay Brunner, and stage manager Jacquelyn Duncan.
At the conclusion, a talking circle forum is moderated by Michelle Zimmerman with the cast. Attendance isn’t mandatory (the play is still a one-act) but I encourage you to stay and be open to discussing your thoughts on Steinem, the play and other topics that arise. The Human Race has offered a safe space which, in many respects, unites the audience in a meaningful way, bringing credence to Steinem’s advice: “Don’t look up – look out – and find shared power.”
Gloria: A Life continues through March 15 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; and 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The play is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $16-$52. For tickets, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com. Parents are also cautioned some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 15.