Viewers who think there is no quality drama on commercial television can do themselves a big favor tomorrow night. They can set their VCRs to record Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Redwood Curtain" at 9 p.m. on ABC -- WMAR (Channel 2).
Then some day when they have two hours, they can sit down and watch this wise, touching, made-for-TV movie. Maybe then they'll come to understand how much intelligent television life there is beyond PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" on Sunday nights.
I predict a minimum five Emmy nominations come September for this film about an adopted Amerasian woman (Lea Salonga) who goes on a classic hero quest in search of her biological parents and her own identity. The film is adapted from the play of the same title, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson.
The first Emmy nomination will be for Salonga ("Miss Saigon") as best actress in a made-for-TV movie. Her character -- Geri Riordan, a young concert pianist -- is the focus of the film.
Geri has reached that point as a pianist where she is all technique and no soul. She knows the problem. As she puts it, "I'm not connected to my feelings. . . . There's no connection between me and the music."
To make that connection, she must go back into her past. In psychoanalytic (Jungian) terms, the path to an enlightened adulthood in "Redwood Curtain" is found in the dark forest of our pasts.
When Geri's adoptive father (John Lithgow) dies, it gives her the impetus to make that journey. It comes in the form of a visit to the home of his sister, Geri's Aunt Geneva (Debra Monk), who lives on the edge of a redwood forest in northern California.
The forest is lovely, scary, dark and deep. It's also filled with thousands of veterans from the Vietnam War, who found it impossible to return to mainstream society as a result of the various scars they carry from that war -- hence the title "Redwood Curtain." Geri's epic battle to save her soul and psyche takes place in this forest, centering on her encounter with a veteran named Lymann Fellers (Jeff Daniels).
Monk played Aunt Geneva on Broadway and was honored with a Tony for her work. She'll surely get an Emmy nomination as supporting actress, as will Daniels and Lithgow as supporting actors.
The finest work of all, though, is probably that of director John Korty ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"). Korty is the best dramatic director regularly working in television. He directs like B.B. King plays blues guitar. There are no pyrotechnics or fast flurries of notes aimed at impressing audiences by overwhelming them. With Korty, everything is understated, honed and distilled. The technique is almost invisible.
The darkest night of the soul on Geri's hero quest is spent in Fellers' "camp" behind the redwood curtain. Korty quietly creates a shimmering, mystical feel by shooting along the edges of the campfire for his close-ups of Daniels and Salonga. The tips of the tongues of fire play against the black night and tortured faces for an authentic sense of the mythic.
April 28 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and there will be a number of highly publicized, nonfiction television productions about it starting next week. "Redwood Curtain" is a quiet, fictional film about the aftermath of the fall of Saigon. It seeks to explore one of the toughest truths of all -- the scars so many wear across their hearts.