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Christine Lahti talks about playing Gloria Steinem, mother-daughter relationships

Lahti is now starring in "Gloria: A Life," an Off-Broadway play tracking Steinem's journey from inauspicious beginnings to becoming the face of the women's liberation movement.

Christine Lahti

Christine Lahti  Photo Credit: Getty Images/Neilson Barnard

When Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Christine Lahti heard about a new play depicting the life of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, she immediately emailed the director, the producer and Steinem herself, saying she was “throwing my hat in the ring,” as she recalls.

Little did she know it would be unlike any play she’s ever performed in.

She’s now starring in “Gloria: A Life,” an Off-Broadway play by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus, which tracks Steinem’s journey from inauspicious beginnings (caring for her mentally ill mother at age 11), to eventually becoming the face of the women’s liberation movement and changing American culture forever.

That’s all Act 1. But in a very unusual Act 2, the lights go up and Lahti hosts an interactive “talking circle” (like the kind Steinem enjoyed back in the 1970s), encouraging audience members to discuss their lives, and women’s issues today. The play, which opens  Thursday, is running at the Daryl Roth Theatre on East 15th Street off Union Square.

Lahti, 68, is no stranger to feminism (her memoir, “True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age,” came out last spring). Known for TV (“Chicago Hope”) and films (“Swing Shift”), Lahti has been married to TV director Thomas Schlamme for 35 years, and raised three children. She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio. 

First—a quick story. After I left “Gloria,” I got on the subway. There were three millennials talking about the show, and an older couple discussing it. We somehow realized we’d all seen the same play, and the “talking circle” of Act 2 continued there on the train.

Oh, that makes me so happy. Gloria would be thrilled to hear that.

So what’s that second act like for you? I mean, you never know what people in the audience are going to say.

It’s beautiful. Last night a man said, “It’s sometimes so hard to be a man, and I’m so happy to hear that’s OK.” He couldn’t live up to this arbitrary definition of what it is to be “masculine,” and that was actually a good thing, maybe. That was so moving and brave. He was almost crying. One night we had a lot of people just plugging their websites -- and they’re all amazing activists . . . and that’s fine, but it’s more rewarding when it’s more personal. I find the vulnerability some people are willing to expose after this play is, I don’t know, really inspiring.

How involved was Gloria Steinem in this production?

She’s been at a lot of rehearsals. And she’s given us treasure troves of information. She’s a close friend of mine, so I’ve been emailing her almost every day, asking, “What do you mean by this?” And “Go deeper . . .” Just finding those nuggets of real vulnerability that I want to infuse in this play, to take the audience on an emotional journey of this woman’s life -- which is not the journey we expect.

How so?

Gloria’s been so honest and forthcoming, and vulnerable. She wants this to be not just some tribute but a human exploration of a very flawed person -- to show her, warts and all.

So what have you learned about her you didn’t know before?

The most surprising thing was how unwoke she was. Till age 35, she really thought writing stories about women was unimportant. That marching and demonstrating for women’s issues was frivolous. She wanted to be a writer -- to write about politics and important things. It’s funny — we think of her as an icon and a born feminist but . . . she was such an unwoke woman. I think people can identify with that. It’s inspiring — like, if she can do it, I can do it.

When did you two first meet?

I met Gloria through a friend, Callie Khouri (screenwriter of the acclaimed and controversial film “Thelma and Louise”). We just really connected. We’re both from the Midwest. We both shared this idea of living the unlived life of our mothers.

What do you mean?

We both had the sense that our mothers weren’t able to live up to their potential — that’s profound in both of us, for whatever reasons. Mine was a housewife and mother in the 1950s and '60s in a patriarchal world. (Things changed when she was older.) She became a painter, and got a pilot’s license. She didn’t fly a lot but she did solo — up there in the skies, by herself. That was a huge moment. I like to think that having a passionate feminist for a daughter might’ve influenced her a bit to just . . . go for it. After the kids left the house she said, 'OK, now let’s concentrate on me. What do I want to do?' And that was a beautiful thing to behold.

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