Unsparing play is powerful TV. Drama tells stark tale of a father's tyranny

I Never Sang for My Father PBS, tonight, 9-11 p.m. (check local listings). Stars: Harold Gould, Daniel J. Travanti, Dorothy McGuire, and Margo Skinner. Writer: Robert Anderson. Producer: Iris Merlis. Director: Jack O'Brien. Playwright Robert Anderson's bittersweet autobiographical study of his relationship with his father is a difficult play to endure but a helpful play for anybody trying to sort out ambivalent feelings toward parents.

This production was originally staged at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and is now presented by ``American Playhouse,'' television's consistently fine and innovative drama series, now in its seventh season. It is an unrelenting production, which doesn't hesitate to portray the bickering and harshness within a family dominated by an irascible, selfish, often unloving father, who imposes his will upon wife, son, and daughter.

Dorothy McGuire as the unselfish, loving mother, Daniel Travanti (Sergeant Furillo of ``Hill Street Blues'') as the guilt-ridden, would-be loving son, and Margo Skinner as the realistic daughter make warm and understandable the complex characters they play. But Harold Gould as the exasperating father is faced with the impossible task of portraying a character written by Anderson out of guilt rather than affection.

Perhaps it is not entirely Mr. Gould's fault that he is able to capture only the obnoxious character of the man, without any of the redeeming warmth that would make him more human - and potentially lovable. Sad, because the play's effectiveness depends upon the belief that, beyond this crotchety monster, there lies a sad, weak, vulnerable human being.

Anderson's play is full of the ambivalence of later-life parent-child relationships - how one deals with an aging parent who is not the idyllic, textbook dad; how one copes with feelings of guilt about leading one's own life when it runs counter to the wishes of a parent. The drama also turns viewers' attention to such problems as coping with the morbidity of funeral arrangements.

``I Never Sang for My Father'' is a sad and thoughtful plunge into the precarious depths of adult child-parent relationships.

Don't expect an evening of escapism; instead you will find bewilderment, uncomfortable truthfulness, and perhaps even personal revelation in this exhausting but ultimately rewarding two hours of superb television.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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