The Undiscovered Beauty of Mrs. Plumm

This weekend, the Theatre and Dance Department presented Wendy Wasserstein’s play “Uncommon Women and Others,” directed by Ms. Silva. Set amidst the peak of second wave feminism, the play explores what it means to be a successful woman within a patriarchal society. Six years after their graduation, five “uncommon” women reunite and reflect back on their college days at the historically women’s Mount Holyoke College. 

I had the honor of playing Mrs. Plumm, housemother to the girls and a Mount Holyoke graduate herself. I must admit that she, though not one of the lead characters, remains my most beloved character. As Wasserstein works to bring the girls to life through highlighting their experiences and thoughts, I invite you all to also think about Mrs. Plumm. Her beauty — reflecting the joy of a free mind and spirit — is yet to be discovered. 

In the play, Mrs. Plumm is in her last year at Mount Holyoke before retirement. Her decisions are fast, logical, and without regret. In college, she decided that it was too dangerous for young women to go on long birdwatching trips alone, so she wrote home asking for money to buy a rifle. Despite her father’s incessant disapproval, she persists and gets the rifle. Considering the era, her desire to pursue her own life choices despite having to counter her family is truly uncommon. Similarly, after retirement, she plans to travel to Bolivia to deepen her passion for birds. After staying in the fields of South Hadley, Massachusetts, for so many years, she is willing to let go of her past and embrace a new future in a foreign environment. Life moves on, and she treasures the undiscovered joys of her world left to discover. For her alacrity, confidence, and undying passion for living, I stood in awe of her character. 

However, I wouldn’t love Mrs. Plumm as much as I do if her character was single-dimensional. Despite her independence, Mrs. Plumm remains a dutiful daughter to her family. Most of her biggest decisions in her younger years are influenced by her family: prominent examples being her marriage and career. Through the rifle, however, the audience understands that her personality has always shined, that her spirit has never been burdened by external pressures. And now that her marriage has (presumably) dwindled in significance, and her career comes to an end, she spends the last chapters of her life cherishing her own decisions. To me, this independence is beautiful: something that renders her character all-the-more charming. 

A comparison to the girls at the college who have not yet attained this independence further highlights this beauty. Working to defy the image of an ideal woman, the girls struggle to balance their own aspirations with societal constraints. Their monologues consist of inner conflicts and hesitation as they attempt to discover what they really want. While Kate worries about the static life behind a successful Wall Street career, Holly struggles with her insecurities, and Rita tries to overcome gender inequities in the workforce, Mrs. Plumm — who has also reached the age when her career is no longer a worry — struggles the least. I should also mention that a similar promptness and certainty is exuded by only one girl at the College: Samantha. Amongst a field of career-oriented women, Samantha announces her decision to marry and rely on a man. She stands out, yet with no regret. Starkly contrasting the other girls, she shines — and Mrs. Plumm even more — as both characters demonstrate that perhaps the purest form of happiness stems merely from a free mind and spirit. 

Mrs. Plumm reflects this freedom in one final yet most special way: by not being confined by her age. Even now, she experiences “transition periods” and readily adapts to the new world, different from her days. Considering again her future in Bolivia, she approaches life with the same vivacity as a young adult. As she states herself, “many memories, seasons, and teas” come to mind at her retirement speech, yet she chooses to share her most recent thoughts. Her spirit is fresh and young, as if time never affected her. Growing up in the older suburbs of China and FaceTiming my grandparents every week, I recognize how special this is. Many of the elderly I encounter frequently remind themselves of their age, which tends to discourage them from pursuing certain activities and a positive mind. My grandparents, for example, are over 70 years old but healthy. Though this age is no small number, the state of their health should allow them to have a more positive aspect on life. Yet, oftentimes, they miss out on a fun opportunity to go on a boat ride, go for a walk at the park, or visit a new town, simply because of their age. Though fictional, Mrs. Plumm’s character refreshingly breaks this trend. 

Ultimately, Mrs. Plumm is lighthearted, glorious, dignified, charming, and truly alive. She was adventurous and responsible in her earlier years; now, life is whimsical, an experiment that she can take in whatever direction she desires. When we reach her age, I hope our days can be as entertaining, lively, and free. Though the girls do not mention Mrs. Plumm’s life after her retirement at their reunion, we can imagine her surrounded by species of beautiful birds, enjoying the sunshine of Bolivia, and smiling at the person each girl has become, or will become, as they lead the lives they want to live. She has inspired me to fearlessly pursue the purest form of happiness I know — to make my own, unregretful, decisions and sustain my passion for life even as I age — and I hope the same goes for you. Thank you, Ms. Wasserstein, for creating Mrs. Plumm. And thank you, Ms. Silva, for introducing me to this play.