Masterpiece Theatre: `The Death of the Heart' PBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Derek Mahon's dramatization of the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. Produced by Granada Television and presented by WGBH, Boston. ``Everyone wants me to be special,'' says 16-year-old Portia in this sensitive, finely crafted drama, ``but I don't know what I'm meant to be.''
She is a kind of misplaced person - as host Alistair Cooke points out. Orphaned and with nowhere else to go, she has moved into the upper-class London home of her uncaring stepbrother and his stylish wife. Portia's struggle to fit in, and her shattered love affair with a man in his twenties, make this self-contained episode of ``Masterpiece Theatre'' both fragile and penetrating, a sadly graceful drama whose meaning turns slowly on the subtleties of its chatty dialogue.
Portia's hunger for love and a place in the world faces the barriers of her in-laws, Thomas Quayne and especially his wife, Anna, who says Portia's ``been nothing but trouble since before she was born.'' The Quaynes are languorously elegant in the mode of the years before World War II, while Portia is an adolescent with what Anna calls an ``unbecoming heartiness'' that's certainly out of keeping with the preferred nonchalance of their moneyed set. Early on, Portia chomps noisily on crackers while her in-laws eye her superciliously and exchange glances. Anna ``has her taste,'' explains a household maid whom Portia turns to, ``... and past that she'll never go.''
The production, in fact, makes a perfect whole of that coolly stylish world: the music in restaurants; the costuming, the leafy Regent's Park environs, which are like extensions of the characters' decorous attitudes. But alongside the deceptively sedate dialogue run currents of sight and sound that add rich emotional texture. You hear out-loud thoughts and see flashing visions - like Portia's quick daydreams about Eddie, the young man who fills a vacuum of affection in her life. The drama makes most of their moments together seem sweet indeed, letting you feel how irresistible he must be to Portia, and the scenes heighten Portia's devastation later on.
As Portia, Jojo Cole is open, vulnerable, unmolded by life, guileless without being ignorant, capable and smart enough not to be entirely pitiable. Portia seems to drink in her surroundings, sizing things up with large, mournful, dark eyes that upset both Anna (``I can't stand being watched'') and Eddie. Much of what Portia sees and hears goes into a diary that becomes a key to the story - and shows that some of novelist Bowen herself may be found in her portrait of the lonely Portia.