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Describing the performance of Amanda Plummer in the 1980 movie Cattle Annie and Little Britches, the critic Pauline Kael wrote: “The only other actress I’ve seen making a movie debut so excitingly, weirdly lyrical was Katharine Hepburn.” Hepburn was born in Hartford, whose Hartford Stage presents Plummer in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1948 melodrama Summer and Smoke.
As Alma Winemiller, a preacher’s daughter in a small Southern town whose attraction to the handsome doctor next door has fateful consequences, Plummer has shed the early-Hepburn tics and, here at least, the early Plummerisms that established her with a deep eccentricity that typically takes decades to attain. Her Alma is a careful study in subtlety – not generally associated with the role, which was stamped off-Broadway in 1952, and on-screen nine years later, by Geraldine Page.
Plummer knew Page; they co-starred on Broadway in 1982 in Agnes of God, a thick double dose of actorly neurosis that lent itself to countless parodies – including a Fringe sketch with African-American actors called Aggie Be Good.
Plummer’s Alma is worlds removed from Page’s; she is less hysterical virgin than misunderstood teenager. You see why the character was Williams’s preferred creation and you understand what binds Alma and John Buchanan, Jr, the physician neighbour.
As the doctor, Marc Kudisch sheds his mantle of musical comedy and displays legitimate acting chops. He plays Buchanan not with overpowering hedonism, the cliché reading, but with wry ambivalence. Terry Beaver as Alma’s father, Reverend Winemiller, is the flip side: humourless certainty.
Tony Straiges’s set design is uncluttered, although it does contain the standard symbols: a human anatomy chart and a statue of an angel named Eternity. If there is a fault in this production, directed by Michael Wilson, it is an occasional blandness. But that can be overlooked, given the refreshing interpretation. ★★★★☆
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