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'Gloria: A Life' review: Celebrating a feminist icon's accomplishments

Christine Lahti, left, plays political activist and women's

Christine Lahti, left, plays political activist and women's rights organizer Gloria Steinem, and Joanna Glushak portrays Congresswoman Bella Abzug, in "Gloria: A Life." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Gloria: A Life”

WHERE Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St.

INFO Tickets from $89; ticketmaster.com, 877-250-2929

BOTTOM LINE An intelligent and participatory bio-drama about the feminist icon.

“It takes a lot of courage to follow myself,” announces Gloria Steinem.

The feminist icon showed up on Wednesday night to lead the talking circle that comprises Act 2 of “Gloria: A Life,” the intelligent, agenda-heavy biodrama now at Off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre.

In Act 1, Christine Lahti plays Steinem, and you don’t need an appearance by the real thing to recognize that the actress has perfectly captured her subject. Lahti, who has said in interviews that she and Steinem are close friends, has perfected the look (down to the stick-straight hair and the aviator glasses) and, more importantly, the intensity and fervor of the activist at the forefront of the women’s rights movement.

But playwright Emily Mann makes clear that Steinem did not walk this road alone. An ensemble of six versatile actresses portrays many of the women who joined in the trailblazing, among them Joanna Glushak, who nails the in-your-face Congresswoman Bella Abzug;  Fedna Jacquet, as civil rights advocates Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Coretta Scott King; and DeLanna Studi, as Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation.

You learn fascinating bits about Steinem along the way, from interesting (she wanted to be a Rockette) to sad (living out of a house trailer, she didn’t go to school until she was 11) to surprising (she’s terrified of public speaking).

The non-linear presentation, directed with precision by Diane Paulus, traces her rise as a journalist and founder of Ms. Magazine, with significant time devoted to a story the script suggests has haunted her all her life — going undercover as a Playboy bunny. And with especially effective projections by Elaine M. McCarthy, it examines her activism, showing her marching against the war in Vietnam, joining rallies for abortion rights, civil rights and gun control, and addressing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

All of this leads to the final talking circle, which is clearly this production’s raison d’être — especially when Steinem takes the audience by surprise as she did this week (and will on occasion down the road, she’s already committed to Saturday’s show.) The outburst on her entrance was joyous and reverential, the spectators in awe.

But Steinem was less interested in adulation than participation, urging people to talk about what in the show resonated most. And they did, with one 24-year-old woman sobbing as she expressed her distress at seeing her country heading in the wrong direction. Exactly the reason Steinem says she wants to get people hooked on this kind of sharing. “The whole purpose of my story,” she says, “is getting you to tell your story.”

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