Saturday, April 1, 2023

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    Review | At Theater J, ‘Gloria’ shares Steinem’s stories as well as her activism


    “Sharing our stories with each other is how we gain wisdom,” an ebullient-looking Gloria Steinem said Monday, addressing the audience gathered for “Gloria: A Life” at Theater J. The octogenarian women’s rights champion was at the opening night of the show, an homage to her life and to the feminist movement she has been part of, written by Emily Mann, who has updated the script for this production.

    If performer Susan Lynskey found it nerve-racking to step onstage in the title role and channel the icon who had just spoken, no angst showed. Lynskey’s wry, self-possessed Gloria anchors director Holly Twyford’s vigorous production of “Gloria,” a play that — if Steinem’s dictum holds — dispenses significant wisdom, since it studiously but engagingly shares many stories.

    Affixed to the auditorium’s walls are pieces of paper inscribed with audience and community members’ responses to the show’s themes. Once the play starts, a deft, role-juggling ensemble, aptly dressed no-nonsense-style in jeans, channels people who cross paths with Gloria during her career as journalist and activist.

    Some are stalwarts of the patriarchy, such as staff at the Playboy Club where she famously works undercover as a Bunny for a 1963 exposé. Some are strangers who leave indelible impressions, such as the woman cabdriver (a droll Sherri L. Edelen) whom Gloria hears wisecrack, “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” — a quip that ricochets around feminist circles.

    Others are friends and colleagues, including women of color who inspire or mentor Gloria, depicted by a cast that includes Debora Crabbe, Sydney Lo and Erin Weaver. Mani Yangilmau brings gravitas and humor to the role of Wilma Mankiller, first contemporary female principle chief of the Cherokee Nation, and a vibrant Awa Sal Secka plays Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, lawyer turned feminist organizer.

    When Lynskey’s Gloria isn’t watching or interacting with these figures, she addresses the audience, often exuding sardonic amusement at past and current sexism. Helping to capture both that sexism and the feminist pushback against it are Danny Debner’s projections, splayed above Paige Hathaway’s lecture-hall-evoking set. The images include 1950s ads promoting happy housewives and footage of newscaster Harry Reasoner predicting that Ms. magazine, which Steinem co-founded in 1971, would swiftly run out of things to say. (He later apologized. Ms. is still in business.)

    Glimpses of the 2017 Women’s March and other liberal touchstones turn up, too. “Gloria” aims to sweep up its audience in a centuries-spanning, ongoing movement pressing toward multifaceted justice, not just women’s rights. “Though we lost Roe in the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is not the country,” Gloria exclaims in the Theater J production, reflecting Mann’s updates. (The original play debuted off-Broadway in 2018.)

    “Gloria” doubles as a consciousness-raising session, especially in the last 15 minutes, in which audience members are invited to share aloud their responses to the show. A special guest will kick off this “talking circle” (as the play terms it) at each performance. On Monday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) spoke about female representation in Congress.

    “Humans are communal animals — we’re meant to be sitting around campfires telling our stories,” Gloria says in the play. Like a campfire, “Gloria” exudes illumination and warmth.

    Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann. Directed by Holly Twyford; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Sarah O’Halloran; props, Pamela Weiner. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $44.99-$84.99. Through April 2 at the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210.

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