Gloria: A Life: Feminist Activist Christine Lahti Channels Feminist Activist Gloria Steinem
By: Ellis Nassour
In a superb, don’t miss performance, stage, TV veteran, and Oscar-winning film star Christine Lahti is starring as her mentor and friend Gloria Steinem in Tony-winning playwright Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, an affecting, rich tapestry about one of the most inspiring and remarkable women of our time. For over five decades, Steinem has raised her voice for women’s equality.
Gloria: A Life, Off Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Park Avenue South at East 15th Street), does something only live theater can do. Act One is Steinem’s story, told by Lahti in illuminating ways, abetted by projections in a temporary configuration of posh stadium seating and a remarkable cast of seven women playing numerous female and male roles. Act Two, called a Talking Circle, invites audiences to carry the play’s themes into conversations of their own. Special guests often lead the conversation.
Since her days at the University of Michigan, where Lahti received a bachelor’s degree in drama, she’s been in the forefront for job/pay equality and health care for women. She’s been particularly effective as a member of NOW (National Organization for Women); a board member of ERA, which is making ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority (“especially since we didn’t succeed the first time); and a board member of Equality Now, the grassroots organization that’s trying to eradicate violence against women worldwide. She’s also gone on the road to pitch for candidates she believes in.
“Those four years at university changed my life and turned me into an advocate for women,” says Lahti.”It was the late 60s and the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, but that wasn’t the only mitigating factor.”
When Lahti heard of the play by Mann, who adapted Having Our Say, from the best-selling memoir by Sarah and Annie Elizabeth Delany and Amy Hill Hearth, she reached out to lead producer Daryl Roth (Kinky Boots, The Normal Heart, Indecent), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus ((Waitress, Pippin, Porgy and Bess), and her friend Steinem that she was interested. So were they, it turns out.
Lahti has collaborated closely with Mann and Tony-winning director Diane Paulus to make the play as relevant as possible. “I’ve never had an experience like this,” she enthuses. “Diane’s amazing, so low-ego, and open to ideas we’ve put forward. Gloria and I connect on many levels. Having her as a friend, I had a lot of offer.”
The production is the very definition of gender equality activism. The company is comprised almost entirely of women – cast, creative team, designers, staff, and producers. Featured portraying various female and males roles are Brittany K. Allen, Joanna Glushak (War Paint, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder), Fedna Jacquet, Francesca F. McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi (August: Osage County),and Liz Wisan (Other Desert Cities).
Lahti reveals her activism came about the same way it did for Steinem. “Hers came from witnessing that her mother wasn’t able to live a full life for lots of reasons. I witnessed the same thing with my mother Elizabeth. She was always second class in her marriage and not really respected. She was never able to live her full potential. That worry has been the fuel of my activism. That’s where Gloria and I connect on a very deep level. I feel the same type of fire in my belly.”
She’s quite candid about pushing her mother away “because I was afraid of becoming her. Gloria did the same. However, I was vindicated by mother’s last chapter. She became a professional artist and a pilot. I like to think she was inspired by her daughter and the feminist movement.”
But it wasn’t just her mother or Steinem’s. “In the suburb of Detroit where I grew up, it was every mother,” stated Lahti. “They had the role that was handed to them: housewives, which in itself is an honorable thing, but none were able to live to their full potential. It was the same everywhere. I was determined, like Gloria, to make sure all women matter. That’s the message that resonates throughout Gloria: A Life.”
Lahti calls herself a “dilettante activist.” “I do all I can when I’m not working, but primarily I’m an artist. While I hold activism in my heart, my advocacy is a drop in the bucket compared to how Gloria devoted her life to it. What’s wonderful about Emily’s play is I get to do both.”
She reveals a moment in her career that still embarrasses her. “I was already an activist when I auditioned for a Broadway show. It was a part I really wanted. I had already had my blood-curdling moment with a man and decided I’d never allow myself to be treated in a disrespectful way.” She went in to find the director sitting on a couch and motioning for her to sit next to him. “He was flirting and rubbing my thigh. I’m giggling and laughing, saying nothing because I wanted the job.
“When I left the office, I felt so disgusted with myself – not with him – for not speaking up. That was something that happened much too often. Before Anita Hill, there wasn’t even a word for sexual harassment. Those hearings were tough to watch, especially how all these old, white men demeaned her. That might have been the first time that it dawned on me: It’s not okay! But, recently, we lived through all that again.”
“We’re living through a pivotal moment for women’s rights,” notes Daryl Roth, “and it’s incredibly important to be telling this story at this moment in time, reminding us how far we have come, enlightening a younger generation of women of their history and legacy, and empowering us to do the work yet ahead. This extraordinary group of women is unprecedented on or Off-Broadway. We honor Gloria’s five decades of activism and breaking down barriers for women around the world. We’re so very lucky that Christine, whose life has been affected and inspired by Gloria, is our Gloria. Her physicality is uncanny. It feels like she’s channeling Gloria.
“In our Talking Circle, we’ve been mesmerized by the heartfelt responses of those who’re angry and frustrated with recent events in the world. Having their voices heard gives them comfort and hope that they’re not alone. Part of the power of this is learning how different the experiences have been. That makes each of our performance a living, breathing thing.”
Diane Paulus agrees. “Hearing the stories has been amazing. For some, it’s a trip down memory lane; for younger generations, an informative lesson of where we came from, and what their mothers and grandmothers went through. Emily’s play embraces the present moment, so we’re consistently updating the script to energize the production. Christine’s a supremely talented actress, activist, and friend of Gloria’s. She’s brought everything in her being to this production. Audiences, female and male, are moved.
Lahti focuses on three major periods of her life: childhood, her journey as an actress and activist, and the realities of her life as a middle-aged woman in Hollywood in True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness, a comical and self-deprecating essay collection. She performed aspects of it as monologues in cabarets and intimate theatres to better hone them for publication.
She was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for 1984’s Swing Shift, and won a 1995 Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action for Lieberman in Love, in which she starred and directed.
Her early years in New York, she as a waitress and did commercials before breaking into theater and TV. Off Broadway, she appeared in major roles at the Public; in the rotating cast of Culture Project’s Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s award-winning The Exonerated, a first-person narrative about wrongfully-convicted inmates; and revivals, such as Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl; and Second Stage’s revival of Jules Feiffer’s black comedy Little Murders.
Broadway roles have included Michael Weller’s bittersweet romance Loose End, Wendy Wasserstein’s acclaimed The Heidi Chronicles; and Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning black comedy God of Carnage.
She’s been equally at home onstage and on TV. “I was getting some great roles in TV, and stayed away from theater for a while. But I began to crave it after I aged out of certain TV and film roles.”
Lahti’s had recurring roles in The Blacklist, the reboot of Hawaii Five-0, and co-starred three seasons on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit as A.D.A. Sonya Paxton, and five seasons as Dr. Kathryn Austin on Chicago Hope. She’s especially proud of her role in 2004’s short-lived [only one season], way ahead of its time Jack and Bobby, a futuristic faux documentary in which she had the scene-stealing role of the eccentric college professor and single mother of brothers Jack and Bobby McCallister and her efforts to secure one a place in the history as U.S. president. It netted her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in at TV Series/Drama.
One role that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked is her marriage in 1983 to her soul mate producer/director Thomas Schlamme (The Americans, West Wing, and Sports Night among others). Though they had shared theatrical interests, at the time Lahti says, “I was very suspect of any man. I thought all men wanted to squish me, but he turned out to be this incredible humanist. In those days, men never called themselves feminists. They were humanists. Today, you can’t get away with that! You have to identify where you stand.”
One reason their marriage has been strong, Lahti points out, “is that we have work we’re passionate about and share our adventures with each other.” She described being directed by her husband in a play and episodes of Chicago Hope and Jack and Bobby as “wonderful experiences.” Either way you look at it, she says, “I really lucked out.”