“Gloria” is a difficult play but not because of its graphic violence. Anyone with a television or an internet connection has already been exposed to an unprecedented degree of both real and fictitious violence. While the climactic scene of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play may be disturbing in its jarring realism, it pales in comparison to the spiritual violence which surrounds it on all sides. With alarming precision, “Gloria” captures the scratching, gnawing and grinding away of human dignity.
While other playwrights have explored the trapdoor that is the American promise in the twenty-first century (Annie Baker, for instance, presents a similar vision in “The Flick” though hers is more like a carpenter endlessly sanding an innocuous woodblock into nothingness), few go as deep into the dark as Jacobs-Jenkins. He boldly suggests that trauma is not necessarily redemptive and may even serve to reinforce our own sense of narcissism, exacerbated as it is by a free-market economy that has hijacked our very conscience.
And while “Gloria” has plenty of laughs at the expense of its vapid sycophants, who are not so much running the proverbial rat race as they are scrambling over a flesh mountain of their colleagues and so-called friends only to melt like Icarus in the fire of their own ambition before ever reaching the top, the play cannot really be called satire. Jacobs-Jenkins’ insights into the emptiness of American corporate culture are buoyed by sharp, crucial moments of self-discovery. Characterized here as being exaggerated in literature but virtually worthless in for-profit industry, sincerity is what keeps “Gloria” from descending into absurdism.
Yet the value of the play’s sincere moments is contextualized by the predominance of disingenuous cynicism that surround them. The two rely upon each other, in a way that is reminiscent of our emotional cravings within the framework of our own duplicitous culture. Twitter makes us feel witty but also spurs a desire for deeper communication. Instagram makes us impossibly attractive but also warps our real-life self-image. Jacobs-Jenkins wisely reserves his judgments on these matters but be warned: you are likely to recognize some part of yourself in “Gloria” and you may not like what you see.
The cast, imported by the Goodman from the world premiere in New York at Vineyard Theatre, has had plenty of practice in executing the play’s brutal rituals. And yet their performances are fresh, almost terrifyingly so given what the playwright asks them to do night in and night out. In taking on new roles after the first act, these actors deepen our relationship to their original characters. To that effect, the drama of “Gloria” is specifically anchored by the shock that concludes the first act and it can occasionally feel like we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Still, this state of alertness makes for an attentive audience and theater, like the publishing world of the play, is a business after all.
In truth, I’m a little dismayed with my ability to summarize this complex and truly vital play. I feel similarly about the people I overheard in the lobby after the mortifying first act describing what they saw as “interesting.” How impressively capable we are of managing trauma. Or perhaps, more frighteningly, how great is our capacity to detach and defer emotionally. “Gloria” will stay with me for a long time as I think it will for many. Because, as the play subtly posits, the Gloria herein may very well live in each one of us. (Kevin Greene)
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $20-$85. Through February 19