There’s a scene in the 2019 film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in which the main character, a young writer who has been assigned to write an article about children’s television icon Fred Rogers, spends the night at Rogers’ home. When he comes down the next morning, he finds Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, and his wife Joanne, played by Maryann Plunkett ’76, playing a rousing duet on two grand pianos.
The writer expresses acute awkwardness for intruding on the Rogers’ private time, but Joanne puts him at ease, serenely assuring him that their new friendship means the world to her husband. It’s a brief scene and one of just two featuring Joanne, but her words are exactly what the writer needs to hear to move forward in his relationship with his subject (and his own life).
Plunkett has crafted a career out of creating just such moments, leading Cynthia Zarin to describe her in the “New Yorker” in 2016 as a “radiant everywoman” whose performances “have the kind of intelligence and emotional range that prods an audience to find that heightened capacity in themselves.”
Born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, Plunkett transferred to UNH to study theater after visiting her childhood friend Chris Pauk ’76 and falling in love with the campus. As a student actor, she performed as Emily in “Our Town,” Noah’s wife Esther in “Two by Two,” and Celia in “As You Like It,” develop- ing the technical skills she’d draw upon in her chosen profession. More important, however, she learned to believe in herself.
“I feel like I came to UNH — and acting — through the back door,” admits Plunkett, who describes herself as immensely shy. “But my professors, especially Carol Lucha Burns, Joseph Batcheller and John Edwards, saw something they thought was special and nurtured me. I became a theater baby!”
In her senior year, she and several fellow theater babies traversed the state of Maine in an old bread truck and her Chevy Impala for 67 straight days, stopping to do dinner and summer theater and raise enough money to create The Profile Theater Company, known today as the Portland Stage Company. “The work was exhausting,” recalls Plunkett, “but we were young, and I just wanted to act. If I was doing good work with people I could love and respect, I was happy.”
Following graduation, Plunkett was happily working in Boston and regionally when she was called to understudy Amanda Plummer, who was playing the 1982 title role in the Broadway production of “Agnes of God.” A year later, Plunkett made the part her own. She played on Broadway as Bernadette Peters' replacement in the role of Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1985. Two years later, she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance as Sally Smith in “Me and My Girl.” She married fellow actor Jay O. Sanders (he played Kevin Costner’s chief operative Lou Ivar in “JFK”) and in 1994 took several years off to raise their son, Jamie, who has entered the family profession as an actor in his own right. This year, she’ll wrap up her work in Richard Nelson’s “Rhinebeck Panorama” — nine plays performed over 10 years that look at the country through three different families living in Rhinebeck, New York.
She has appeared in film and television as well, and even those who don’t know her name will instantly recognize her as a guest star on their favorite episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Law & Order” and “Manifest,” as well as films such as “Little Women” and “Company Men.”
Film and television have their own rewards, but the stage is where Plunkett says she holds her deepest connection. “What I love most about the theater is feeling part of a community. No matter what size your part is, you all begin on page one, line one, and you all take a curtain call, together. In between, you’re collaborating to create a world that isn’t real but that you have to surrender yourself to so the audience will surrender itself as well. When this process is working, it’s almost holy.”