Miracle in the Woods

CBS Sunday Movie brings on another touching vidfilm in the spirit of its recent prized cockle-warmer, last August's "The Price of Heaven." Loaded with effective characters and performers, a moving teleplay by Joe Slowensky, and Arthur Allan Seidelman's impressive direction, "Miracle in the Woods" offers that particularly scarce TV item, originality. Having Della Reese and Meredith Baxter among the topliners doesn't hurt. The skilled contributions of Patricia Heaton and Anna Chlumsky help the cause. But the startlingly winning Sanaa Lathan, playing the role of Reese as a young woman, simply shines. Actress has worked Off Broadway and has appeared in a scattering of pilots.

The complex plotting involves Baxter’s brittle character, loaded with private troubles, coming back to her small Southern home town for the funeral of her and her embittered sister Heaton’s mother, whom Heaton has taken care of these past years.

Mom’s will leaves everything to Heaton except a recliner chair for the single-minded Baxter. Not mentioned in the will is an all-but-forgotten pecan grove where it turns out that Reese, a slightly confused, aging recluse, lives in a cabin waiting for her son to come along. She spots Baxter’s fresh-faced teenager daughter Chlumsky and, mixed up, starts calling her by the name of a young woman who helped her years ago.

Slowensky’s drama spreads backward in time to the period when charmer Lathan, playing the young Reese, steps into the picture. She’s winsome, pretty and innocent, and she wants to meet a boy she can love. Picking out Randy Brooks, she marries him and drives truckloads of what she thinks is cotton seed sacks for him.

When she becomes pregnant and can’t work, an angry Brooks treats his wife rough and gives their young son away to neighbors. Troubles for everyone begin in earnest.

Slowensky’s teleplay, despite tying things up too neatly in the end, is admirable storytelling. There are melodrama and surprises, secrets are unrolled, the dialogue’s sharp, and Greg Gardiner’s fine lensing takes full measure of the story’s mood shifts.

Ernest Troost contributes an original score, and Bert Gladstein’s editing is fine. Director Seidelman draws out all the stops as the intricately planned story moves on, and production designer Vaughan Edwards shrewdly and definitively blends North Carolina location sites into their proper time zones.

Reese, depicting maternal yearning with conviction, easily dominates her scenes, and her tender scenes with grown-up son Thom Gossom are a gem. Baxter delivers a thoughtful, plausible characterization of a cornered woman trying desperately to control her own life, but Slowensky and Seidelman let Baxter down as the character caves in as her truths come out.

Heaton offers a pleasant, even reassuring, touch to the telepic, and Chlumsky presents a warm young woman who’s got heart. But it’s the little-publicized Lathan who breaks out of the crowd the minute she smiles at the camera. The actress hands the vidpic another dimension.

Miracle in the Woods

Sun. (26), 9-11 p.m., CBS

  • Production: Filmed in Wilmington, N.C., by Patchett/Kaufman Entertainment. Executive producer, Ken Kaufman; producer, Stephanie Hagen; co-producer, Tom Luse; co-producer/writer, Joe Slowensky; director, Arthur Allan Seidelman; camera, Greg Gardiner; editor, Bert Gladstein; production designer, Vaughan Edwards
  • Crew: sound, Carl S. Rudisill; music, Ernest Troost; casting, Junie Lowry-Johnson, Ron Surma.
  • Cast: Meredith Baxter, Della Reese, Patricia Heaton, Anna Chlumsky, Randy Brooks, Thom Gossom, Sanaa Lathan, David Hunt, Bill Nelson, Tim de Zarn, Mark Joy, Charles McLawhorn, Ed Grady, Ronn Carroll, Dee Thompson, David Dwyer, Nate Bynum, Rasool J'Ham, Jim Martin, Jon Huffman, Sharlene Thomas, Rainoldo Gooding, Sybil Simmons, Charity Jones, Tom Nowicki, Rebecca Koon, Angela Ray.