TV serves up fine family fare

Thoughtful 'Miracle Worker' and funny 'Seventeen Again' lead list of good choices

It's a rare TV week that offers a range of good family movies, and this is one of them. But most are bunched together on Sunday, so choose carefully.

The Wonderful World of Disney presents a fine retelling of "The Miracle Worker" (ABC, Nov. 12, 7-9 p.m.) based on William Gibson's Tony Award-winning 1960 play of the same name. Masterpiece Theatre offers a lovely story of turn-of-the-century England with "The Railway Children" (PBS, Nov. 12, 9-11 p.m.).

The sweetly goofy comedy "Seventeen Again" (Showtime, Nov. 12, 8-10 p.m.) tells the story of an elderly divorced couple who get to see their lives from the vantage of youth.

And one more biblical epic rolls out in time for the holiday season with a new miniseries ("From Creation to the Commandments") called "In the Beginning..." (NBC, Nov. 12 and 13, 9-11 p.m.). See interview with star Jacqueline Bisset, page 18.

The most touching and thoughtful of the lot is no doubt The Miracle Worker. The play has been done so often and is so well-written that, like "Our Town," it has passed into the culture as an icon of Americana.

The story of blind and deaf Helen Keller is given new energy with a fine young cast. It's very different from the Patty Duke-Anne Bancroft version - but then it's time for another generation of viewers to experience the story with new performances.

This time Helen is played by seven-year-old beauty Hallie Kate Eisenberg. She is best known, perhaps, for her Pepsi commercials, but has already appeared in several movies and TV shows. She is nearer Helen's age than Ms. Duke was, and her performance, while not quite so layered, is expertly done and fully believable.

Best of all, she is joined by the marvelous Alison Elliott, who was right as rain in "Wings of the Dove," and makes a feisty, fresh young Annie Sullivan - determined, intelligent, and creative.

Annie is employed by Helen's parents to try to rescue their little wild thing from the darkness of ignorance. The story inspires viewers again and again because Sullivan does not give up on an apparently hopeless situation.

Instead, she finds a creative response to her challenge.

Helen's parents pity Helen, and their pity has devastating consequences which Annie must reverse. Once Helen is "teachable," Annie employs the child's own curiosity, inventiveness, and intelligence to teach her.

"Hallie is really a lovely person, a genuine actress," Ms. Elliot said of her co-star in a recent telephone interview.

"It was tremendously challenging, but she was able to understand some difficult theatrical concepts," Elliot says. "There is so much physical and emotional work - we really had to trust each other, we were knocking each other around, and we could not pull our punches."

Elliot says she loves thinking about the ideas in the play - what does it mean to be completely isolated and then to find communication for the first time?

"Helen could have been lost, but her desire to communicate drove her to understanding," she says.

"In our very depths we cannot help being human. There is inspiration in that - to find your own gifts and to serve them....

"In Annie's case, the challenges in her life, what had knocked her down - her own vision problems and being raised in institutions - were her gifts," Elliot notes.

"Those things made her victorious in an area no one else had been able to conquer. She was unusually qualified to do some good...."

The Railway Children concerns a closely knit family that finds itself plunged into poverty from middle-class prosperity when the father (Michael Kitchen) is falsely accused of espionage.

E. Nesbit's beloved children's story relocates the three children, two girls and a boy, and their mother in a country cottage where mother must sell poems and stories to help make ends meet.

The children spend hours roaming the countryside, making friends with the local station master and porter, and waving to the trains. When a kindly old gentleman begins waving back to them on a regular basis, they know they have found a friend - a friend who helps them in three different emergencies.

Beautifully written, acted, and directed, this modest British film may be a touch naive about railroad barons, but the engaging goodness of the characters is real enough to be convincing.

Far-fetched as it is, Seventeen Again boasts two principal charms - Tia and Tamera Mowry, the twins from "Sister, Sister."

When 12-year-old genius Willie experiments with an anti-aging formula, his divorced grandparents end up 17 - again. It gives them a chance to rediscover their love for each other, natch.

And it's all fairly predictable terrain. Still, it's great fun to watch Tamera affect the body language and mental state of a senior citizen, and Tia as the real 17-year-old cope.

Then there's In the Beginning... and the best part of the whole show is ... in the beginning, with Abraham and Sarah (Martin Landau and Ms. Bisset), though Billy Campbell as Moses does a nice job, too.

The British actors in the smaller roles are terrific. The film stumbles over the story of Jacob and Esau, and later over Joseph's story as well. But Landau and Bisset are good together, and an honest attempt has been made to stay faithful to the original source material.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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