FOR years my eye has been lighting, now and then, on a small book sitting on a shelf in my library - a collection of television plays by the late Paddy Chayefsky. The titles - like ``Marty'' and ``The Bachelor Party'' - keep reminding me of a time in the 1950s when the medium offered compelling, naturalistic drama whose plots owed nothing to lurid events recently in the news or to the lives of the jet set.
One of the plays in the book, ``The Mother,'' is a solid example of Chayefsky's genius for picturing the souls of plain people caught up in the anguish of everyday lives. Back in 1954 it received a live airing on the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, starring Cathleen Nesbitt in the title role and Maureen Stapleton as her daughter. No copy of that broadcast is known to exist, but on Monday, from 10 to 11 p.m., a restaging of the play is being offered on ``Great Performances'' on PBS.
It's a great service to viewers, since it provides younger ones with an authentic sampling of TV's so-called Golden Age and lets older ones put their wistful reminiscences to the test. Chayefsky has been getting a lot of attention lately. Earlier this month, he was the topic of a seminar at New York's Museum of Television and Radio Broadcasting, and he's the subject of a recently published book, ``The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky,'' by Shaun Considine (Random House).
``The Mother'' is an ideal choice for restaging. It is quintessential Chayefsky, before he became the only screenwriter to win three Oscars. It tells of a recently widowed woman, based partly on Chayefsky's mother (though given an Irish accent here). She is constantly resisting pressure from her married daughter to move in with her and her family. To retain her independence, the mother struggles to find a job after 40 years at home, the way a drowning person clutches at a floating board.
With Anne Bancroft now in the title role, the drama pungently evokes a certain time and place (the Bronx, New York, 1954), yet viewers everywhere will instantly recognize the emotions stirred up in these powerfully unpretentious scenes. No beautiful people, no hot-dog acting or attention-getting production devices, only a family grappling with a universal problem and an old woman whose search for dignity is conveyed with piercing simplicity. It's good to hear those artfully obvious family exchanges again: ``Ma, you're not going out in the subway. I'm coming over,'' daughter Annie says on the phone. ``When are you going to give up...? They don't hire white-haired old ladies.''
Yes, it does help if you bring a historical curiosity to the show. How many other made-for-TV dramas are likely to be restaged 40 years later, with current stars, almost exactly as written, and not ``opened up'' with expansive sets or exotic locations to bridge the generation gap to today's flashier TV style? The feeling is stagey and a trifle claustrophobic, a series of archetypal family exchanges played out in mundane settings: a modest bedroom or a sewing shop in the needle-trade district of New York. Gut-level feelings emerge through the family talk: The daughter seeks the mother's love but may not get it, even if she does appear ultimately to be persuading her mother to move in.
But the key to the show lies in Bancroft's brilliantly matter-of-fact delivery - wistful, discouraged, languishing in self-analysis as she thinks out loud about her job search. The impact of her character comes in its compelling contrasts: She is a stooped, desolate figure, wringing her hands in an inward search for identity, cringing before a young boss at the sewing shop. Yet she has a will to work and stubbornly denies the inroads of age. When she sheds tears near the end, it is devastating because she has been such a reserved woman before this. But it makes the upbeat ending, tinged with realism, all the more exhilarating.
Many Chayefsky fans call ``The Mother'' his most notable TV script - after ``Marty,'' perhaps. A look at this production makes it easy to agree.