The idea of a family summer by the sea evokes images of hot sand and cool surf, reading in the shade, picnics in the dunes. All of that is there in the ''Great Performances'' version of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (PBS, Friday, 9-11 p.m., check local listings). But as in the novel, there is much more.
''Lighthouse'' is full of the restlessness of sensual awakening, the thirst for psychological intimacy, the edginess of professional ambition. Although introspection abounds in all of Virginia Woolf, ''To the Lighthouse'' is one of her most introspective novels. It is filled with the imagined sounds of unenunciated yearning.
The adaptation by Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg, unselfconsciously utilizes a kind of ''Strange Interlude'' technique to verbalize the stream-of-consciousness musings of its main characters. With skill and infinite subtlety, they manage to peel back surface reactions to reveal innermost thoughts and honest reactions.
''Lighthouse'' records the end of the family times by the sea, the end of several relationships, the breakup of comfortable alliances, the beginning of new ways for most of the Ramsay family. Although Michael Gough plays the callous patriarch of the family with authentic unbending authority, it is Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Ramsay and Suzanne Bertish as Lily Briscoe who dominate the television screen. There's a bit of the real Virginia Woolf - and perhaps even Vita Sackville-West - in both of these characters, as written and as splendidly played. The lighthouse is a symbol of love, off in the distance, always there but never attainable for young James (who is probably also still another Woolf alter ego).
''To the Lighthouse'' is vivid yet evasive. It is, perhaps, as unfinished a story in the long run as was Virginia Woolf's own life.
Viewing the television version of ''To the Lighthouse'' is not as rewarding as reading the book, since Virginia Woolf is quintessentially literary - but it is an absorbing electronic study in mixed human signals.