By Lynn Venhaus

Relevant and empowering, New Jewish Theatre’s “Gloria: A Life” celebrates one of the most inspiring women in history with a knockout performance by Jenni Ryan as feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

Ryan wasn’t initially cast as Steinem, but was announced as the replacement on May 27, a mere five days before opening night. Under intense pressure, not to mention a time crunch, Ryan admirably captures the essence of the leading lady, with gumption and authenticity.

Like others who have been called in at the last minute on productions, for the-show-must-go-on on opening night June 1, she did have a script with her, and nonchalantly glanced at it a few times, but without any awkward interruptions. She affected Steinem’s calmer demeanor while other females are venting on inequality.

Ryan was last seen at the J as the mom in “Broadway Bound” in January. This current turn is a real-life triumph when the show is highlighting women’s accomplishments. After all, Steinem refers to herself as a “Hope-aholic.”

Hope and drive permeate this work. And Ryan gets it – why Gloria matters, why this story is important, and why it is crucial that social activism continue in this current political climate.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff

But it’s not a one-woman show. Emily Mann’s play spotlights other remarkable activists who were catalysts for change in the workplace, the home, and politics in the late 20th century.

Mann, a veteran playwright and artistic director, enlisted Steinem’s participation and guidance for this play, which premiered in 2018.

Now 89 years old, Steinem’s legacy is a remarkable one, and this interpretation details how she used her voice to champion others, putting into practice her philosophy that conversations can prompt changes.

For those who weren’t alive during the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, this gives that time perspective and is a valuable history lesson. But the 90-minute play (without intermission) is not merely a look back at the discrimination and harassment women faced and how they found their voices in unity.

Rather, it is an urgent call to action for today’s pressing issues. Because struggles are ongoing – race relations, reproductive rights, gender equality, gun violence, patriarchy, #MeToo, other freedoms threatened and democracy in peril. (And that’s where the second act comes into play.)

During the first act of Gloria’s journey, a passionate ensemble embodies a revolutionary spirit, with six actresses playing various pioneers of an earlier era and key people in Gloria’s life.

Actress Sarah Gene Dowling is both gutsy Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Gloria’s broken mother Ruth; Kayla Ailee Bush is fiery Ms. Magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes; and Lizi Watt is fierce Wilma Mankiller, first female chief of Cherokee Nation, among the prominent figures; and Chrissie Watkins, Summer Baer, and Carmen Cecilia Retzer take on multiple roles, wearing many hats (and scarves).

Civil rights attorney Florynce Kennedy is depicted, as are women wanting to make a difference. Nevertheless, there are some famous not-so-nice guys, people who aren’t fans, and other negative folks among the positivity.

As directed by Sharon Hunter in the J. Wool’s Studio Theater space configured in the round, the women swiftly move in and out, expressing themselves in discussion, fiery tirades, protests, sisterhood bonding, period music and dance. They reflect the conscience-raising efforts of those past decades.

Significant life touchstones mentioned include Steinem’s reporting days (of course the undercover Playboy Bunny magazine piece); co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 with Abzug, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and others; co-founding the monthly Ms. Magazine in 1972; and the 1977 National Women’s Conference.

Gloria’s story portion concludes with the Women’s March in January 2017 in Washington D.C., where Steinem spoke to thousands of women wearing pink pussy hats.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff

A lively Dowling excels as “Battling Bella” – who was elected to the House of Representatives for New York City’s 19th district in 1970, and was a driving force in liberal political organizations, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, a women’s credit-rights bill, abortion rights, and child-care legislation. (In 1974, women could finally get a loan without their father or husband co-signing it, thanks in part to Bella).

It’s also important to note that the cast and crew are all women. Scenic designer Fallon Podrazik kept the set simple for movement and interaction, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler assembled retro fashions representative of the times, while sound designer Amanda Werre created a mélange of important sound bites and familiar tunes, and there is distinct illumination from lighting designer Denisse Chavez.

Props master Katie Orr’s work was particularly demanding, replicating magazine articles and finding Ms. Magazine issues, not to mention making protest signs.

And there is a unique second act, a 20-minute interactive “talking circle,” that seeks audience participation in hopes of harnessing the energy of this production. Playwright Mann thought it was important to engage people and that these conversations could propel folks into action, pointing to Steinem’s mantra “the healing is in the telling.”

The ultimate goal is for people to learn from each other, and as Gloria has said: “This is the way we discover we’re not crazy and we’re not alone.”

Photo by Jon Gitchoff

At several performances, a local Guest Responder is launching the talking circle by sharing their own story of breaking barriers or simply responding to the play. For a complete list, visit: jccstl.com/njt-gloria-a-life.

The night I was there, State Senator Tracy McCreery led the conversation. One of the audience members pointed out that black women were at the forefront of the feminism movement, and that led to more reflections.

While it may seem that the needle hasn’t been moved that much in the past 10 years, I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I am appreciative of the women who fought hard for the rights we now enjoy. After this viewing, I am optimistic, citing the words of “Hamilton”: “This is not a moment, it’s a movement.”

“Gloria: A Life” is certainly galvanizing, and the cast is enthusiastic about the stories they are sharing. It can fire up younger generations and spark renewed excitement by re-activating those Baby Boomers who recall the victories of the past. And Steinem is still fighting for human rights.

And this intimate look is another opportunity for those to marvel at how far we have come– although the work is unfinished. There are more trails to blaze and fires to put out. The play has something to say and the cast underlines it with vigor.

New Jewish Theatre presents “Gloria: A Life” from June 1 – 18, on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre. For tickets, call 314-442-3283 or go online at newjewishtheatre.org.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Addendum: Some follow-up streaming programming:

  • “9to5: The Story of a Movement” is a 2021 documentary directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert,” and currently streaming on Netflix. (It won the Joe Williams Documentary Award given by the St. Louis Film Critics Association. I was on that jury).

  • CNN miniseries “The Seventies” in 2015 – seventh episode is “Battle of the Sexes.” (Max)
  •  In a 2020 Amazon Prime original narrative film, “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor directed four different actresses to play Steinem at different stages of her life — Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander as adults and Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Lulu Wilson as youngsters.
Photo by Jon Gitchoff

The New Jewish Theatre will perform Gloria: A Life at the Wool Studio Theatre from June 1 to June 18. Written by acclaimed playwright Emily Mann, with guidance and participation from Gloria Steinem herself, Gloria: A Life explores the iconic feminist’s legacy. Decades after Gloria Steinem began raising her voice for equality and championing the voices of others, her vision is as urgent as ever. This play embodies Steinem’s philosophy that conversation is a catalyst for change as it celebrates one of the most inspiring women of our time.

Sharon Hunter, the director, says she is honored to lead the production. “As our country continues to struggle with painful questions about race relations, reproductive rights and gender equality, Gloria’s leadership continues to inspire many to take up this quest for freedom,” Hunter said. “My hope is that our production will encourage men and women to rally their collective voices and carry on her work.”

In a unique and interactive take, Act II of this play is actually a “talking circle.” After telling Gloria’s story in Act I, the actors will begin a discussion. At several performances, a local “Guest Responder” will launch the talking circle by sharing their own story of breaking barriers or simply responding to the play. This gives an opportunity for the audience to learn from each other, as, according to Gloria this “is the way we discover we’re not crazy and we’re not alone.”

The New Jewish Theatre’s cast and crew will consist entirely of women. Led by director Hunter, this team includes Fallon Podrazik (Scenic Design), Michele Friedman Siler (Costume), Denisse Chavez (Lighting Design), Amanda Werre (Sound Design) and Katie Orr (Props).

Kirsten De Broux, returning to the New Jewish Theatre stage after appearing in 2022’s Laughter of the 23rd Floor, will lead as Gloria Steinem. She is joined by an ensemble of six actors:  Kayla Ailee Bush, Sarah Gene Dowling, Chrissie Watkins, Lizi Watt, Summer Baer (Brighton Beach Memoirs, 2019), and Carmen Cecilia Retzer. They play a wide variety of roles, including fellow activists and icons Flo Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller, and many more.

“I am thrilled to bring an all-female cast and creative team together for Gloria: A Life,” says Artistic Director of the New Jewish Theatre, Rebekah Scallet. “This play celebrates pioneering women fighting for equality in the workplace, the home, and the political arena, as well as to have control over their own bodies. The world of theatre is still very much male-dominated, especially in the fields of scenic, lighting, and sound design, so it’s wonderful to have this amazing group of talented women collaborating to tell this important story.”

Don’t miss Gloria: A Life at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre (2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146), running June 1 to June 18. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $27- $58. Tickets are available by phone at 314.442.3283 or online at newjewishtheatre.org.

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ABOUT THE NEW JEWISH THEATRE:

The New Jewish Theatre is dedicated to exploring Jewish themes and celebrating Jewish writers while examining the full range of the human experience. We present universal work through a Jewish lens, using our productions to enrich lives, promote inclusivity, and build community.

By Lynn Venhaus

Heart-tugging and hopeful, “Tiny Beautiful Things” strikes universal chords as it reverberates through a darkened theater.

Now playing at The Grandel, the deeply personal journeys of people who cared enough to reach out to another human, to make that connection in cyberspace, even when they were confused or desperate or sad or angry, will smack you upside your head, resonate emotionally, and may elicit a few tears and some smiles – if you let it pull you in (and why resist?).

Perhaps listening to four people be vulnerable will prompt the proverbial light bulb to come on, illuminating what’s going on in your life. Or by hearing about others’ experiences, you will be comforted too.

The well-worn themes of love and loss provide perspective in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling self-help book, served up by Nia Vardalos with sprinklings of humor and heaping amounts of compassion. This is not your mom’s yellowed Ann Landers’ clippings.

“Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” was published in 2012, a collection of essays from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, which she wrote anonymously on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine. She took it over from her friend, Steve Almond, in 2010. The book also includes essays not previously published.

With a nudge from director Thomas Kail, who was given the book by journalist Marshall Heyman, Vardalos conceived it as a play, mixing in the author’s memoir along with the dating advice and grieving support.

It premiered at The Public Theater in December 2016, starring Vardalos as Sugar and three actors playing various e-mail letter writers, directed by Tony Award-winner and Emmy nominee Kail (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” “Fosse/Verdon”), and a revised version returned the next year.

The story’s framework is simple: The writer dispenses words of wisdom, an understanding achieved after many battles of her own, and because she is willing to expose herself to strangers, they in turn disclose their inner-most thoughts and feelings.

With such candid material to work with, producing artistic director Stellie Siteman and managing director De Kaplan knew it was the right choice for their company, Max and Louie Productions, to return with after a harsh 16 months that has changed us all.

Because we endured a pandemic period filled with isolation and self-reflection about our own lives, being with others post-coronavirus quarantine reinforces what we all know but need to be reminded about: We are not alone.

Even with the best of intentions, this could come across very Hallmark cards-like, reducing sentiments to those home décor signs urging us to “Forgive and Forget” or “Live Laugh Love,” but Vardalos and Strayed are too smart to settle for repeating platitudes, as are the women involved in this production.

Vardalos struck gold writing and starring in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” two decades ago, earning an Oscar nomination in 2003, and Strayed, who was a troubled soul trying to come to terms with her past and present through a 1,100-mile hike in 1995, published that life-changing trek in the 2012 bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Both are grounded women who have achieved success representing their own lives so authentically, which is the foundation here.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga understood the challenges of this piece and did not embellish it with any unnecessary frills. She approached the play in a straightforward and sincere manner, which is affecting and skillfully presented by this veteran cast, anchored with authority by Michelle Hand.

Greg Johnson and Michelle Hand. Photo by Patrick Huber

The creative team’s collaboration is subtle. The minimal scenic design by master of detail Dunsi Dai suits the intent. Ronga moved, with purpose, the actors around furniture that represents their characters’ homes – including a couch, a bed, a desk and a table. Everything appears lived in, with key items placed by props designer Katie Orr, and exudes a comfortable atmosphere, accented by lighting designer extraordinaire Patrick Huber. Costume designer Eileen Engel selected casual outfits appropriate to the roles.

Two large panels rise above – are those windows to the soul? Hmmm…This isn’t supposed to resemble a psychiatrist’s office, and the set intriguingly widens the reach while narrowing the focus.

As letter writers, versatile stage actors Greg Johnston, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Abraham Shaw strike different tones as they reveal what their assorted characters are looking for or what has defined each of their lives.

As the human faces of email exchanges, they present their questions and responses in a natural way, becoming a de facto support system and sounding board. One of Johnston’s characters blurts out WTF several times, amusing the audience with such a declaration. (The play contains some strong language and adult content).

As Sugar, Hand wrestles with confidence and her conscience, showing the growth of Cheryl and depicting the raw honesty for which the writer is known. That draws the other characters in, and us, too.

Writers are often hard to portray, especially typing at a computer, for the work is such an internal process — unless there are major conflicts. With this format, we don’t follow the 80-minute show like regular storytelling — nor does it reach a dramatic conclusion – but is moving nonetheless.

What makes this so touching then? Could it be as plain as seeking meaning while we find our way, holding on to ideals and keeping faith that things will turn out all right? Or it’s OK to say we aren’t OK? Because having lived through the uncertainty and anxiety of a public health crises, something we are still processing, this performance on Friday night seemed as warm as your grandma’s chunky hand-knit afghan and as familiar as a hug from a cherished loved one.

Strayed doesn’t profess to have all the answers, nor does she say she can fix everybody and everything. But by offering examples of her struggles, exposing herself so openly, somehow, we come out of the dark and into the light. It’s that simple, but that profound.

Hand approaches each role so genuinely that you believe whatever situation she is going through, whether she is Tami, the exasperated mother of an autistic son in “Falling” at Mustard Seed Theatre; Toril Grandal, a cook serving her family’s special pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream to world leaders, in “Oslo” at The Rep; or the broken-hearted lesbian artist Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre.

She is best at bringing the humanity out in her characters, real people portraits — (cases in point, Maggie Dalton in St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “Into the Breeches!”, who discovers her mettle while her husband is fighting in World War II, St. Louis Theater Circle Best Actress in a Comedy Award 2019; and innocent Rose Mundy, the intellectually challenged sister in “Dancing at Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed).

Anyone with a heart – lonely, heavy, hungry, normal – can relate to the personal stories shared. In a world where empathy seems to be in short supply, this work restores the belief that we get to carry each other, and through that, the broken can be healed.

If you crave the intimacy and insight that live theater can supply, “Tiny Beautiful Things” will reward you.

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Michelle Hand and Abraham Shaw. Photo by Patrick Huber

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is presented without intermission at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in St. Louis, from July 29 to Aug. 8. Performances are at 2 p.m. on Aug. 1 and 8; at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 4 and 5, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6 and 7.

Tickets are on sale at www.metrotix.com or by phone at 314-534-1111 or at the box office an hour before curtain. Socially distanced reserved seating is restricted to groups of 2 and 4 consecutive seats, and booth seating is available for groups of 4 and 6. Masks are required.

Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification. To ensure that they may create safely, present safely, and attend safely, they pledge to Covid-19 safe protocols which patrons are encouraged to view at Max & Louie Productions’ website at www.maxandlouie.com.