When it is officially announced that actor Mary McDonnell is going to portray writer and activist Gloria Steinem in Emily Mann’s play Gloria: A Life, I instantly realize something.
The first and most evident fact I am immediately sure of upon hearing this news is that I am not going to miss this opportunity to finally see Mary McDonnell on stage. Despite having followed her career for a long time, I have yet to see her in a play. Her latest stage job was in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard at People’s Light Theatre in Malvern, Philadelphia, in the winter of 2015, which I missed for health reasons. However, if Mary McDonnell’s movie and TV performances, as well as her extensive career and numerous credentials and awards, are anything to go by, I can already count on it to be a joy for the eyes and the soul.
The event will take place at McCarter’s Theatre in Princeton, NJ, and will run for the most part of September and the first week of October 2019. The official announcement is released by the end of June.
As I start making plans, booking flights and purchasing tickets, I also come to realize how little I really know about Gloria Steinem: just who she is, her looks and a bunch of headlines. Since the play’s opening is just a couple of months away, I make the conscious decision not to improve my knowledge before I watch it. I decide to attend the event with an open mind and heart and as little information as I can manage to have. I certainly can fulfill all my needs in this regard reading Gloria’s books once the run of the play concludes. I want to be surprised. I want a chance at forming my own take even before becoming familiar with the take of Gloria herself. I understand I will be dealing with a fair amount of subjectivity no matter what: the subjectivity that will stem from my own perception, Mary McDonnell’s interpretation, the point of view of the play’s director, Emily Mann, the incarnation of the whole cast, the energy of the entire team bringing it to life and the passionate points of view that I count on my dear friends not to hold back. There is no such thing as objectivity in art; neither in the creator nor in the receiver. That is one of the reasons why it is such an accurate reflection of real life. It is also the main reason why, more often than not, art is more real than life itself.
Time goes by, and September 6th finally arrives. With it, the play’s opening. As much as I want to know nothing in advance, as much as I want this piece of art to surprise me, there is only so much I can ask of the strength of my will: I cannot keep myself from reading some reviews. They are consistently brimming with praise and admiration for the concept of the play, for the writing, and for Mary McDonnell’s performance. Still, a couple of isolated comments get me worried: they seem to wish for a more complex, multi-faceted portrayal of Gloria’s persona and story, one that does not simply rally the audience into a self-satisfying wave of adoration and gratitude for her achievements, rightful as that would be.
It is not that I am willing to give more credit to two doubtful reviews than to twenty outstanding ones. I simply have this problem: I am a sucker for complexity. No matter the context, the dissonant voice always has the power to resonate with me, the spell to make me listen. As soon as unanimity is broken, I find myself trying to figure out where the different opinion is coming from and what truth it can hold; what the point is that these divergent voices are trying to make, the point that everyone else seems to be missing. If life is not black and white but a wide range of grey; if no one is in full possession of the truth, then a better, more complete and inclusive truth must be achieved by not ruling out dissonance. For better or for worse, that is how my mindset is built.
None of these critical comments goes as far as to describe Gloria: A life as a political pamphlet or activist propaganda; however, if the point of view of the play is too one-sided, if it does not dig deep enough into Gloria’s complexity (and nobody with her charisma and her story could be anything but complex), I know I will not enjoy it as much as I am expecting to.
Then again, I do not want to know what to expect, remember? I decide to renew my commitment to my initial decision and go back to square one: open mind and heart. Let this play surprise me.
‘If no one is in full possession of the truth, then a better, more complete and inclusive truth must be achieved by not ruling out dissonance.’
There are some constants in my life, some safe havens I can always return to, no matter how overwhelming my circumstances or how insidious my doubts. One of these constants is Mary McDonnell: her ability to move me deeply with every performance, the seeming easiness with which she speaks straight to my emotions, no filter between her acting and my feeling, between her voice and gestures and my heart and gut. It is, always has been, instant connection of the unexplainable, just-meant-to-be kind. She paints emotional landscapes I understand viscerally. I have a long track record of being shaken and moved by her roles; they often contributed to shaping my attitudes and nurtured, when not elicited, some of my real-life decisions. Thus, it does not matter if this play is not done in the way that would best suit my sensitivity, or if it ends up feeling alien to me somehow: I trust Mary McDonnell to make it meaningful to me.
I am a bit ashamed to admit all this; especially now that I have seen Gloria: A life and I have been able to confirm for myself how stunningly unfounded my concerns were. Maybe, deep down, I was simply trying to prepare myself for the possibility that I did not like it as much as I wanted to; maybe I was just a bit scared that it would not live up to my expectations.
Not because the play was lacking, but because of the height of my expectations.
Saturday, October 5th. My friends and I arrive at the McCarter’s Center for the matinee, the first of three shows I am going to attend on the play’s closing weekend. A warm atmosphere engulfs me as soon as I enter the Berlind Theatre. The warm lights, the vivid colors, the setting of the seats enclosing the stage in a welcoming womb; the thick rugs, the book stacks, the cushions on the floor: every detail has been conceived to create an impression of intimacy. This is a place where trust can happen safely.
This surprises me and, as it turns out, I must have had some expectations after all: you can only be surprised when reality establishes a contrast with what you thought there would be. I realize this is not the kind of setting I have been expecting for the narration of the life of a woman who wrote a book titled ‘My life on the road’. Everything here is designed to make every person in the audience turn inwards; to encourage us to make a natural, seamless connection between the fight and the activism that happens out there and the intimate, private experience that takes place “in here”, in our hearts. This is the story of an activist as much as the story of our lives; it is public and political as much as it is personal. I would not realize it until some time later. I am still grasping its purpose and its depth as I write.
Mary McDonnell’s performance is the tour–de–force I knew it would be. You just cannot portray Gloria Steinem properly without reflecting her strength, her wit, her boldness, her determination. Mary has this uncanny ability to disappear in the characters she plays; it is almost as if she temporarily deserted her own body, voice and gestures, as if she vanished from within her own flesh, leaving an empty shell behind, to let those characters inhabit it for a certain amount of time. Her portrayal of Gloria Steinem is no exception: it is glowing, magnetic, compelling, mesmerizing. I find myself so absorbed in her acting that the first time around I miss parts of dialogue and the actual story that is being told. Luckily, I will have the chance to remedy my distraction and fill in the gaps during the other two shows I will attend.
However, as inevitable as representing Gloria’s strength may be, it is her vulnerability that makes her real. Stripped of the fragility inherent to any human being, an icon remains just an icon: someone untouchable that acts and speaks from some pedestal out of our reach; someone up there that we look up to from our poor flat ground. What lends the people we admire their true value as role models is what has the power to make us relate to them: their human side. And nothing is more human than our mistakes, our doubts, our flaws, and our defeats.
Gloria’s vulnerability is almost constantly present on stage during the nearly two hours of the show: the numerous rejections and humiliations she suffered at the beginning of her career, and her initial insecurity tackling them; her fear of public speaking; her complex relationship with her mentally-ill mother; the weak roots and lack of safety of her upbringing; her panic when she finds out she is pregnant; her difficulty to connect with her softer self, with her own conflicted emotions, and to reconcile with her own story; how hard she sometimes finds to cope with certain insults or accusations; her humbleness as she learns from others and acknowledges her own ignorance; her true love, her husband, whom she found and married in her sixties only to lose him three years later… It is impossible not to tear up when Gloria finally falls apart, shaking and sobbing, after confronting some malicious, ill-timed criticism that pushes her to face all the pain and the loss in her life. Still, the telltale signs of our insecurity and vulnerability, of our flaws and wounds, must often be found in the subtle nuances of expression rather than in the obvious. Subtlety is a craft that Mary McDonnell masters: she paints for us the picture of Gloria the woman with hints and touches: a brush of her hand, a sparkle in her eyes, a barely-there hesitation in her speech. Mary McDonnell’s performance brings Gloria close to the audience. She truly incarnates her, and thus she becomes Gloria’s vehicle: she channels her towards each and every one of us.
‘What lends the people we admire their true value as role models is what has the power to make us relate to them: their human side. And nothing is more human than our mistakes, our doubts, our flaws, and our defeats.’
Vulnerability is so utterly present in Gloria: A life that it makes its appearance already in the very first scene: Gloria casually claims that her trademark glasses are prescription but also protection. This line instantly reminded me of another one of Mary McDonnell’s stellar performances: Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica. During an interview years ago, Mary herself explained how Roslin’s use of her glasses, the pattern with which she puts them on and off in different situations, was the character’s way to keep her front open but somehow protected.
So very Gloria. At least, so very Gloria as per Emily Mann’s and Mary McDonnell’s take. I never met the actual Gloria. Although I now feel I have.
If subtlety and this unique combination of strength and vulnerability are two pillars of Mary McDonnell’s craft, another big exponent of her acting is humor. Humor has most certainly been present in Gloria’s speeches, books, and public appearances over the years; humor is already present in Emily Mann’s gifted writing. To my mind come lines such as ‘I can’t mate in captivity’ (Gloria claims this is the reason why she never married) or ‘If women could sleep their way to the top, there would be many more women at the top’. There is a scene where a woman admits being confused as to how to share the housework with her husband; to what another replies: ‘Close your eyes, imagine how you would do it with a female friend, now open your eyes… and don’t lower your standards’. Every fiber of Mary McDonnell’s being seems to vibrate with mischief, wit, cheekiness, as these situations unfold and her own, trademark humor bubbles up to the surface. In specific moments, Mary reappears for a second or two just to give us her verdict on the sexist stuff Gloria has to put up with: ‘You can’t make this shit up!’ she exclaims, dragging us all into a roar of shared laughter that reaches even the remotest corners of the stalls.
During its one hour and a half, the play explores all the big themes of feminism in the last fifty years, as well as others that you would not expect, or that their connection to the women’s fight for equality does not seem evident at first glimpse. The belief that women use sex as a means of accessing power is confronted with the reality of women blackmailed into offering sex to get or keep a job, effectively showing both the untruthfulness of said belief and the double standard in place. Additionally, if even today it is hard for so many abused women to come forward, pursue justice and restore their lives, the play excels at showing the terror of suffering abuse in a time where terms such as abuse or sexual harassment had not even been coined. It also achieves a devastating reflection of the mental disorders and wasted talent in many women who never got the chance to truly be born; this is, to thrive, pursue their own dreams; live their lives for themselves, according to their own ideals and values; and be emotionally, sexually and financially independent.
The play also acknowledges the terrible impact of unwanted pregnancies in any woman’s life and the trauma of both having and not having an abortion. It deals with the issue rigorously, in a way that is sensitive as much as gut-wrenching. It masterfully exposes how underprivileged women are those who most often need to resource to abortion since they have no other means to either prevent an unwanted pregnancy or to follow through; and how criminalizing abortion pushes them further down into their poverty, and often condemns them to despair and compels them to hurt themselves in an attempt to free themselves from the burden.
Qualities such as ambition, determination, leadership or an assertive discourse are praised in men but often get women accused of being ‘a bitch’. A conspiratorial Gloria whispers to us her infallible default answer: ‘Thank you’. If you face such accusation, you must be doing something well, you must be leaving a mark, scaring those who badly need a scare, forcing society to take you seriously. Also, against the common belief that women are other women’s worst enemy, Gloria borrows from the Native American culture, and offers to us, the idea of the talking circles: circles of empathy and support in which anyone can speak up, share their experiences and understand they are not alone; ultimately, rediscover their own strength in the strength of other women, of other human beings. This organically leads to the idea of transversal activism: women’s fight for equality cannot be understood isolated from so many other movements that demand equal rights and opportunities regardless of nationality, race, sexual orientation… At the end of the day, it is about building a fairer world for everyone and activism in one area interacts with others. Every movement, ethnicity, culture, nurtures and enriches the others.
The play also gets me thinking about the men I have met in my life. Some of them are the best exponents of everything that Gloria has spent her life trying to eradicate. Others, however, are a nurturing force in their households; encourage their partners and daughters to pursue their dreams; and behave in a way that effectively allows those women to thrive. Some of these men have given me pause; have made me think about the risk of backlash and about how counterproductive it can be to adopt attitudes and discourses that can offend decent men (even if many still need to learn some stuff, to open their eyes to the reality of what women keep facing). I have taught them things in our conversations, I have heard them say ‘Now I get it.’ I have also listened in return.
Some of these caring, committed men who regularly prove they want the best for us; who get offended every time we take offense; who go out of their own way to see us achieve what we deserve, dream, and fight for; and who equally and happily share every burden that we carry; these men have made me realize that we women need to tackle the fight for equality from a constructive approach where both genders are learning; at war with injustice, not with each other. We need to keep our balance, to stay grounded in fairness and integrity, if we want our behavior not to discredit our fight. The fact that rage is legitimate does not mean that we are entitled to use it indiscriminately, or to generalize; it does not even mean that direct confrontation is always the smartest, most effective way to achieve our goals. Determination, patience, resilience, education, humor, and plays like Gloria: A life can go a long way.
‘Every movement, ethnicity, culture, nurtures and enriches the others.’
Gloria: A life probably was an eye-opener for many attendees; I know for a fact that it was cathartic for quite a few. Personally, I find it mostly truthful, empowering, encouraging, compelling, didactic. Hopeful. Despite my emotional nature, I do not experience a catharsis at any moment during the weekend and that leaves me a little puzzled, seeing such strong reactions from some people around me. Maybe it is because I have been lucky enough not to experience big traumatic events; at least not of the type that derives from patriarchy and inequality (rape, abuse, abortion, unwanted pregnancy, sexual submission, neglect in my marriage, and so on). Still, I connect with this play in a very personal, intimate way. I certainly know inequality, I have suffered it myself and relate to what the play evokes and discusses. I value and honor my hard-earned rights as a citizen. I have seen people I love suffer in many of such situations that luckily passed me by. I know what life used to be like for women when my grandmas were my age, even if my grandmas (both of them) already had paid jobs in the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Most women become more radical with age’, affirms one of the play’s characters at one point. I could not agree more. There are irrefutable reasons for it.
I was saying before that it is only when we make ourselves vulnerable that we have a chance to connect, to discover that we are not alone. I have said that Gloria: A life was devised to make us turn inwards.
It was also designed to make us turn towards one another.
This is the reason why, from the first show I attend, I realize I must speak up during the talking circle that runs for the last twenty minutes of every show. Fear is the reason why I do not do it until the very last performance of the entire run of the play; the last of the three shows I have tickets for. Maybe the sense of urgency inherent to any last chance gives me the final push; realizing that, if I do nothing now, I will come to regret it later.
I need to speak up; courage is the only token that experiencing the strength of the talking circle asks from you. I must do it because it makes sense: I am feeling very vulnerable at this point in my life for very specific reasons, and this is a safe environment to share my sorrow. This is, ultimately, what the entire play is about, the deep truth around which it revolves. I want to honor this place, I want to show trust in return for the warmth, unconditional support and genuine human encounter that this piece of art creates.
I can only achieve all of this stepping out of my comfort zone: speaking about my biggest fear (which is not just my current biggest fear but my biggest fear ever), exposing the depth of my pain in front of a group of strangers, and doing so in a language that is not my mother tongue. The sole thought of doing it in my native Spanish makes my knees wobbly already.
Which is exactly the reason why I cannot let go of this chance.
My hand is burning, demanding to be raised. As soon as I do so, a microphone is placed in it. From this point on, I only have to follow.
I start explaining how I relate with the part where Gloria looks after her mentally sick mother and discovers how she never pursued her dreams, how she never truly lived. This scene speaks to me by contrast: when I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that her having a job was good for me too: maybe she had less time to spend with me, but the time she had she could use it much better in my favor. She could enrich my life, teach me all sorts of things, and set an example for me: in a nutshell, raise me and take care of me in a much more complete way.
As I arrive at the hard part of the story, my voice falters. For a second, I physically feel that the floor right under me will open wide and swallow me whole. Later, one of my friends, who was right next to me in that moment, would confess to me that she had the impulse to hold my hand. I would admit to her that, in that very same moment, I had the impulse to ask her to please hold it.
Why didn’t I? Why didn’t she? Why are we afraid to show that we notice our fellow human’s pain and that we care and are available for them? Why does it scare us so much to admit we are fragile and cracked and wounded, to give in to comforting physical contact, and to relax into the realization that we do not have to do this (all of this, any of this) alone? There is always a hand ready to catch us: we just have to reach out.
I manage to steady my voice just enough to explain that my mom is sick, that she is slowly forgetting who I am, and that now that the roles are reversed and I am taking care of her, I am realizing she was right: I do a much better job of looking after her because I have my own life, dreams, and purpose.
This is about all I can say without disintegrating. I cannot look up, or around; I cannot look at my friends, or at Mary McDonnell or the other cast members. I am too busy holding myself together. One moment later, as air slowly gets in my lungs again, I hear the sound: everybody is clapping, and it surrounds me like an embrace, a thick warm wave envelops me and makes me feel safe, even if just for a few seconds. A remarkable achievement in a period of my life when some days feel like my entire world is crumbling. One day that is not so far away, my mom will no longer remember who I am: who will I be from that day on? However, I know I have my own core to hold on to, one I have taken care of and built over the years guided by her example: it is from this core that I can attend to her.
One month has passed. The themes of the play still resonate with me, coming and going in waves, and I find myself gently processing, letting ideas and emotions sink in, pouring them on this white page on my laptop, hoping someone will find some truth or some light in this, my personal experience, once I share it. Hoping someone will relate and thus, the connection will keep going.
Gloria A life was not a play: it was a human journey, a celebration, an encounter. It was a kaleidoscope of realities, both flawed and phenomenal. Seemingly effortlessly, as all masterpieces work, it delivers a powerful message: making the world a fairer place is about love.
As for me, my determination to be surprised by this play, I am finding, comes with its own blessing and reward: every time I encounter Gloria Steinem again, I will never not see Mary McDonnell’s Gloria.