For reasons that likely will require little explanation, Gloria Steinem is experiencing a pop cultural renaissance these days. Two different major motion pictures are in the works with her as their subject: Julie Taymor’s My Life on the Road (from Steinem’s memoir, adapted by playwright Sarah Ruhl, starring Julianne Moore) and Dee Rees’s An Uncivil War, starring Carey Mulligan as a younger Steinem fighting to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. But first, there’s the play Gloria: A Life, a stage experience that’s one part theater, one part consciousness-raising group therapy session.

Written by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus, and put on at the Daryl Roth Theatre (named for the female producer who has produced more Pulitzer Prize–winning plays than any of her male peers), Gloria: A Life offers an experience that promises to be a more intimate recollection of Steinem’s journey, not only because it’s been singularly shaped by the hands of women. Despite the various big Hollywood affairs to come, the play is the production that Steinem has been the most involved with, its particular bent being the public’s introduction to Gloria, the girl, rather than Gloria, the icon, and with its emphasis on amplifying the experiences of its audience.

At a preview performance of the show on Tuesday night, doors opened to an amphitheater-style setting in the round, with benches surrounding a Persian carpet (Steinem’s own) and a few stools and stacks of miscellaneous books on the history of women in America. Before the show, the voices of Stevie Nicks, Gwen Stefani, Aretha Franklin, and KT Tunstall crooned over the loudspeakers. Christine Lahti, who has won awards for acting and directing in films like Swing Shift and Lieberman in Love, has been enlisted to play Steinem and has her down pat, from the 1970s all-black getup, silver belt, and aviator sunglasses to her mannerisms and voluminous layers of highlighted hair. It’s more than a passing resemblance: The two were introduced years ago by Callie Khouri, the screenwriter of Thelma & Louise, and have formed their own women-in-cahoots sort of relationship within the bounds of the production and outside of it. Like Steinem, Lahti also grew up in the Midwest and had a dysfunctional childhood; both have said that they feel they are living, to some extent, “the unlived lives” of those who birthed them.

“Welcome!” Lahti booms in character, opening her arms wide and explaining that the simple act of talking to one another about our grief and pain is “the surefire path out” of a broken world. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle, like this,” she gestures. “We call it consciousness raising . . . it’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it. We are in a crisis like I’ve never known—but I haven’t seen as much activism as I’m seeing right now. You might be wondering why I’m so optimistic, given this shit storm we’re in right now. I’m a self-proclaimed hope-aholic, but also, I remember when it was so much worse.” Scenes from the 1950s—appliance ads, Father Knows Best—are projected onto screens. “It’s not just that we live in a patriarchy,” she stresses. “It’s that the patriarchy lives in us, right?”

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Gloria Steinem

Photo: Getty Images

The rest of the 90 or so minutes that comprise Act I present the events that would come to define Steinem’s life: the mother who was addicted to tranquilizers; the female viewer on Larry King Live who called her a primary cause of “the downfall of our beautiful American family”; the time Richard Nixon was interviewed by Dan Rather about Ms. magazine and afterward called Henry Kissinger on a hot mic to ask, “For shit’s sake, how many people really have read Gloria Steinem and give one shit about that?” There is time devoted to her early career and her male colleagues in the newsroom who dismissed the majority of her journalistic efforts and sent her out as an undercover Playboy Bunny, a searing exposé that brought her a lot of attention and is also a wound that still smarts. (Even today, Steinem’s character recounts, men will “list my books and my credits and then . . . .” The chorus calls out: “She was a Playboy Bunny!”) And then, of course, Steinem discovers the women’s movement and feminism: learning from activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Wilma Mankiller (who taught Steinem about the talking circle format employed in the play), and Bella Abzug, with whom she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. These scenes are portrayed between the five members of the chorus—each of whom represents a different ethnicity and backstory in their real lives—as well as footage from the real events, right up to Steinem’s speech at the Women’s March, footage of Christine Blasey Ford’s searing testimony before the Senate, and the intervention of activists Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher following that same event, which (briefly) made at least one senator consider the repercussions of appointing a judge accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct to the Supreme Court.

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Act II is only 20 minutes, but they are among the play’s most powerful. The production becomes a real talking circle—on Tuesday led by (the real) Steinem—in which attendees can air their feelings: their reactions to what they’ve seen, for example, or their grievances with the state of the world and the paltry progress for women within it. (At subsequent shows, this portion of the evening will be led by different special guests.) “The rage many of us are feeling right now can be an energy cell,” Steinem said on Tuesday. “Whether you’re talking to family or marching with friends or putting your foot in an elevator door and forcing a senator to listen—don’t worry about what you should do, just do whatever you can do. Don’t look up, look out at each other and find shared power. I know I won’t be with you on this earth much longer, though I plan to live to be a hundred. I have to just meet my deadlines!”

Gloria: The Play will run at the Daryl Roth Theatre through January 2019.