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Veteran theater artist Emily Mann was excited but also curious when the call came four years ago. It was feminist icon Gloria Steinem on the line and she wanted to know: Would she be interested in, and available to, write a stage biography of her?

"Are you kidding me — it took me all of two seconds to decide," Mann said in a phone interview last week, her voice rising with excitement in the retelling. "Gloria Steinem was my heroine growing up. Yes!"

Mann's fan-girl giddiness obscured a few things. The first is that people think they already know Steinem, a light whose name is a byword for women's liberation and who has been lionized in films and books for decades. What more could a playwright reveal about her life?

And Mann, a Tony winner, had worked with living subjects before, including the centenarian Delany sisters, whose story she told in the Broadway play, "Having Our Say." But she had never had the opportunity to capture the life of such a star.

Would Steinem be open and honest and willing to go to the vulnerable, warty places a dramatic work required?

Some answers to these and other questions can be found in "Gloria: A Life," Mann's 80-minute play that opens Saturday at the re-christened Herstory Theatre in St. Paul. Staged by Risa Brainin, who formerly worked in the Twin Cities before launching a national career, the work telescopes eight decades of Steinem's life and work, including aspects that are not well known about Steinem's early life in her native Toledo, Ohio.

"Gloria's mother suffered horrible breakdowns and was basically not there," Mann said of Ruth Nuneviller Steinem, who was 34 when she started having violent delusional fantasies. Steinem was 11 when she took on the role of caretaker at home.

"She was a child alone taking care of her mentally ill mother, so it makes sense that she would be formed that way, that she didn't want other women to go through what she went through," Mann said.

Looking into her eyes

The playwright combed all of Steinem's writings for research. Importantly, she had two long tell-all interviews with her. "I wanted it into Gloria's voice," she said, "to get into her thoughts and words."

Those sit-downs gave her a way to humanize Steinem.

The play itself has been through a couple of conceptual phases. Mann and Steinem first imagined it as a one-person show, with Steinem playing herself.

"We went into workshop and did it, and she said, 'Oh, my God, I'd rather die than do that again,' " Mann recalled. "She has a real appreciation for actors."

The next phase is what we have now, which is an ensemble with the Steinem character at the center.

At the Herstory Theatre, Charity Jones plays the title character with an all-female ensemble that includes Cathleen Fuller, Katie Bradley, Jamila Joiner and George Keller.

That initial call from Steinem was not quite out of the blue, although Mann is such an admirer of Steinem that she kept thinking that her heroine would not know her name. Mann said that they first met in the early '90s when she went to a party Steinem gave for women in the arts, she said. "It was a mob scene, so I thought she would never remember me."

But then "Having Our Say" opened on Broadway, where it ran for nine months in 1995, and Steinem was one of the celebrities who saw it.

"I was backstage and thought I'd go reintroduce myself to her, and as I approached, she reached out and said, 'Emily, I'd like to introduce you to my friend Anita Hill.' "

"Having Our Say" registered with Steinem more deeply than Mann realized.

"She saw this story of black people in America from slavery to freedom and also black women in America, and said, 'If she can tell the story so personally and how the personal is political, then maybe she can do my play,' " Mann said.

Widening the circle

To organize the play, she chose the idea of a story circle, an ancient, nonhierarchical framework. It's partly a way of showing the egalitarian ideals of a movement that has divisions around class, race and sexual orientation that mirrors those in the larger society. Steinem was a bridger of divides, particularly around race. And her vision was more holistic than that of Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique."

"Betty was about white suburban women and Gloria was about all women, including women of color, poor women, lesbians. We'd like to honor Betty, but it's hard to honor her the way she treated Gloria."

Tactical and philosophical disagreements aside, the fight for women's equality is unfinished.

The theater is expanding the play with "talking circle" discussions featuring Betty Folliard, founder of ERA Minnesota (Saturday), gallery director Catherine Jordan (Oct. 3), and Native American poet Marcie Rendon (Oct. 11).

Mann says she wants to come to the Twin Cities but may not be able to see this production. She has her own version of "Gloria" up at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, where she will retire as artistic director in June.

She has fond memories of the Twin Cities, where she lived for five years ending in 1979 while she earned a master's degree at the University of Minnesota.

"When I came of age, I looked at her and said, ' I can do what I want to do,' " Mann said. "She was a beacon for me who gave me so much courage."

Now Mann hopes that by capturing Steinem's life onstage, she's giving that courage to audiences across the nation.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 @rohanpreston