Fine `Foxfire' drama outshines `Masterpiece Theatre'

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Foxfire CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, John Denver. Writer: Susan Cooper, based on the play by Cronyn and Cooper. Director: Jud Taylor. Executive producer: Marian Rees. Tune in to ``Foxfire,'' and slip away with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn to the mountains of Appalachia for a lyrical rural holiday, far from the violence, sham, and glitz of the city. But don't expect to escape the problems of aging, of small-farm survival, of generation-gap alienation.

``Foxfire,'' based on the play by Cronyn and Susan Cooper, is a rich and lovely extended sketch about Annie Nation, a woman who yearns to end her days on the farm where she spent her happiest moments, despite the fact that time and economics have caught up with her. Alone, she shares her widowhood and her chores with her departed husband, who inhabits the orchard and engages in a flow of memories with her. All of the characters - the couple, the son (played by John Denver), as well as a real estate developer and a schoolteacher - are based on real characters culled from the pages of a regional magazine, Foxfire. In nature, foxfire is a type of lichen that lives on dead fallen trees and causes them to glow in the dark.

``Foxfire'' doesn't merely glow in the dark - it is a glorious bonfire burning bright on the small screen. Although it was written originally for the theater, ``Foxfire'' makes perfect television fare, overflowing with secret and subtle glances, grins and grimaces that might get lost on a large stage.

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By traditional theatrical standards, the play is slight and slow and sentimental; the characters narrow; their lives insular. But it is a play about things that really matter: loyalty, commitment, integrity, tradition. It shimmers and sparkles and refreshes like a palmful of clear water from a mountain brook.

Tandy and Cronyn are totally believable as lovingly crotchety mountain folk. They agree and disagree, quarrel and make up, love and dislike each other in utterly believable scenes of mutual affirmation.

The executive producer of ``Foxfire'' is Marian Rees, whose superb programs - ``Love Is Never Silent,'' ``Resting Place,'' and ``The Marva Collins Story'' - have become the hallmark for ``Hallmark Hall of Fame'' productions.

``Foxfire'' will make you yearn for the good old days, even if you never actually experienced them. Its subtle complexity masquerades as simplicity and ingenuousness - perhaps the ultimate sophistication. Certainly it is a play about wealth, but it is the richness of a shared life of stable values that it celebrates.

Chances are you will be seeing ``Foxfire'' every holiday season from now on, since it is bound to walk away with Emmys for everybody involved. It is the quintessential holiday show. Despite its elements of fantasy and tragedy, it is an electronic magic show that manages to turn two mundane hours into a joyous celebration of life.

Masterpiece Theatre: Sorrell and Son PBS, Sundays through Jan. 10, 9-10 p.m., check local listings. Stars: Richard Pasco and Peter Chelsom. Adapted from Warwick Deeping's novel by Jeremy Paul. Producer/director: Derek Bennett for Yorkshire TV.

The declining British class system meets the burgeoning British feminist movement in a middlebrow soap opera culled from a popular post-World War I novel in the latest offering from ``Masterpiece Theatre.''

If you were expecting another ``Brideshead Revisited'' or ``Jewel in the Crown,'' you are doomed to disappointment.

``Sorrell and Son'' is pure and simple soap - the story of an ex-Army officer's determination to see to it that his son leads a good life among the upper classes.

There is the father's early struggle in menial jobs (straight out of an old Joan Crawford movie), the son's fight against public-school snobbism when his pater is revealed to be a (no, not that!) porter, and the young man's battle against his own lower-class sexism, etc. There's love and misfortune, good fortune followed by terminal illness, followed by declared love and repentance.

It's all impeccably acted, smartly costumed, predictably plotted. Worth watching ... if there is nothing better to do. But there is something better to do: Watch ``Foxfire'' on CBS.

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