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Maria Ricossa plays Gloria Steinem in Gloria: A Life at Greenwin Theatre in Toronto's Meridian Arts Centre.Dan Bowman/Handout

  • Title: Gloria: A Life
  • Written by: Emily Mann
  • Director: Marcia Kash
  • Actors: Maria Ricossa
  • Company: Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company
  • Venue: Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to May 7, 2023

Gloria: A Life is a 2018 play by Emily Mann about Gloria Steinem – who describes herself in it first and foremost as a “hope-a-holic,” though you likely know her better as a key figure in second-wave feminism, a journalist and author and co-founder of Ms. magazine.

Stage veteran Maria Ricossa plays Steinem in the Toronto premiere, now on courtesy of Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, though she wisely avoids impersonation and only dons aviator glasses when strictly necessary.

Her Steinem talks directly to the theatre audience; she seems very aware of the fact she’s starring in a documentary play about herself. This in-the-round production, directed by Marcia Kash, sees much of the audience seated on stage at the Greenwin Theatre in the Meridian Arts Centre, as historical footage and photos (designed by Elaine J McCarthy) are projected on curtains behind.

Six other actors (Cherish Violet Blood, Liz Der, Catherine Fitch, Karen Jewels, Caroline Toal, Malube Uhindu-Gingala) are there to co-narrate and play all the other characters – the men who, especially in the early part of the show, dismiss or harass Steinem; and the women with whom, especially in the feminist movement section, Steinem invariably has a relationship of mutual respect.

It’s early in Gloria that Steinem – who is 89 in real life – talks about being a “hope-a-holic” despite all the turmoil going on in the pro-choice advocate’s country, including the overturning of Roe v Wade. (The script has clearly been updated.)

The reasons for Steinem’s hope is she remembers when things were much, much worse, which allows her to segue back to the 1950s and an account of her mother’s own experiences in sanatoriums after having a “nervous breakdown.” Steinem’s mother is a throughline to the show, the only one where politics play second fiddle to emotion.

After a brief account of Steinem’s time at Smith College in the 1950s, Gloria jumps to her work as a freelance journalist, including her undercover exposé of life as a Playboy Bunny (a notorious assignment) and a memorable chauvinism-filled cab ride she once took with Saul Bellow and Gay Talese.

The open sexism Steinem encounters on the job in the 1960s includes being kicked out of a hotel lobby where she’s waiting to interview a celebrity, because unaccompanied women are assumed to be sex workers; and being asked by a New York Times editor if she would rather discuss a draft of an article she wrote in a hotel room later – or drop off his mail for him. Sexual harassment was not a term yet, she notes.

After covering an abortion “speak-out,” Steinem gradually starts getting more involved in women’s liberation, and the play moves on to the Ms. magazine years and the lead-up to the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

With FX’s absorbing 2020 miniseries Mrs America (created and co-written by Canadian Dahvi Waller) fresh in mind, much of this was familiar to me – though the real-life Steinem didn’t much like the show about the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

She’d certainly prefer Mann’s play, which is extremely straightforward and style-free, prioritizing moments of solidarity and advancement in the feminist movement over conflicts or setbacks.

It depicts intersectionalism as having always been at the heart of Steinem’s feminism; there is much emphasis on (and cameo appearances by) the Black women who led the women’s movement such as Florynce Kennedy, and what Steinem learned from Cherokee Nation activist Wilma Mankiller forms the backbone of a later section. (As for women in the world outside of the United States, they don’t really figure in this show.)

Gloria is very much a President Donald Trump-era piece of theatre, something that feels like it was meant to carry forward the energy and solidarity of the Women’s March in 2017.

One final note: The show is not quite as advertised. As with the original production, this one is being billed as a two-act show. “The first act tells her story, and the second invites the audience to share their own,” is how it’s put on the HGJTC website.

In fact, Gloria is a 100-minute, one-act play followed by a short 20-minute coda – a “talking circle” in the style of consciousness-raising groups of the 20th century feminist movement.

This was described by the actors on opening night as not like a normal talkback – but it wasn’t really all that different from a normal talkback. Still, the opening-night one was memorable thanks to an appearance by trailblazing women’s health advocate Dr. May Cohen, 92. Listening to a brief account of all that Cohen worked to change in her lifetime in Canada certainly sparked hope.

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