Cynthia Jeffery brilliantly portrays feminist icon Gloria Steinem in a live production currently being staged by the Invisible Theatre in Tucson. With this vibrant, in-your-face activist play, one can honestly say live theatre in the city is finally coming out of its cocoon. While one venue in town (whose name beginning with R will remain nameless) is so averse to artistic criticism it will no longer allow this news outlet the opportunity to review its plays, Invisible Theatre producer Susan Claassen shows once again that she is fearless. It has been her indomitable spirit that has seen Invisible Theatre reach its 50th year in Tucson, and for that she deserves a civic award from the Mayor and City Council.
As Ted Cruz has shown this week, the only thing to fear from the press is the truth. Here is the truth about the play GLORIA: it is fantastic! Even those who are not congenial to the feminist cause should see this. I would even venture to say that while those committed to the broad outlines of gender equality as the ones most likely to buy tickets for this, the people who should see it most are men over 50 who will gain a new perspective on the electrically-polarising figure of Ms Steinem.
She is now 86, and was involved with updating the original play for the production here in Tucson. She released the following message, shown to audience members during a discussion at the conclusion of the performance. “I’m honoured to be part of your gathering, and the magic of Susan’s Invisible Theatre, the staff, board and GLORIA – A LIFE ensemble. I hope one day, we will actually be together, but tonight makes us part of each other’s life stories – and that is forever.”
The play consists of a series of vignettes, showing Gloria interacting with people who were important in her life. This includes one which was only a phone-in call to the Larry King show, where the female caller told her how awful she had been. But her real nemesis was Phyllis Schafly (shown on stage in a video clip), who torpedoed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that would have ensured equal legal rights for all citizens regardless of sex. Remarkably, even many women thought it was an over-step in the early 1970s, when most could not even secure a credit card in their own name: credit was all based on their husbands. One feels sure that until the ERA is finally made a part of the US Constitution, Steinem’s work will not be complete. “Trying to change the oldest power inequity on the planet” is not an easy task, as she states in the play. The issue is still alive in the US Congress.
The many positive influences on Steinem’s life (who are listed below, together with the names of the cast), are sensitively interpreted. Her early life, spent with her downtrodden Mother, certainly made her more prone to help other women. Steinam admits in the play “I had no idea what feminism was when I went to university.”
Gretchen Wirges portrays the iconic Congresswoman and outspoken feminist activist from NYC, Bella Abzug (1920-1998). Two activists Steinem credits as a major influence in “Second Wave Feminism” are in the play: To-Ree-Nee Wolf portrays the civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy; and Gianbari “Debora” Deebom depicts Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Steinem’s mentor and Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, is played by Alida Holguín Gunn. Wilma told Steinem it was the Iroquois Nation that was used as a model for democracy by Benjamin Franklin as he worked on the Constitution. Rounding out the cast is Steinem’s speech therapist, played by Amalia Clarice Mora.
Just by the force of her personality, the Abzug character overshadows the others. In costume, Wirges looks very much like Abzug, and revels in channeling her delightfully abrasive persona. A video of the real Abzug is also shown on the three monitors that enfold the stage which are used to great effect throughout. Together with Steinem and two others, Abzug founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, which is a central year in the life portrayed here. “I wish I had her as a Mother,” laments Steinem.
There is no better way to get back into theatre-mode than getting off the couch and venturing out once more as Invisible Theatre leads the way to a brighter tomorrow with GLORIA.
GLORIA – A LIFE is on stage thru March 7, 2021. Reservations are required. For information, and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at (520) 882-9721. By the way, the use of clear masks worn by the performers ensured the audience could see the entire face of the cast members.