New 'WonderWorks' is 1908 frontier story


December 05, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

The conventional conceit of coming-of-age dramas is that while gaining their own knowledge of life, young protagonists can also enlighten adults. "A Girl of the Limberlost," the latest "WonderWorks Family Movie" from PBS, is pretty much true to form.

Seen on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67) at 8 tonight, the movie is an adaptation of the popular, semi-autobiographical juvenile novel by Gene Stratton-Porter, which tells the story of Elnora Comstock (Heather Fairfield), a 15-year-old girl growing up in 1908 on the Indiana frontier.

Although somewhat on the wooden side and hardly the best of the "WonderWorks" offerings, "Limberlost" offers the usual features of the PBS family series, including modest education about places and people from history and a central emotional drama.

In this case, the drama turns on Elnora's mother (played very stiffly by Annette O'Toole), a widow struggling to keep the family farm operating. She's harsh to her daughter, stingy with affection and initially reluctant to let Elnora go into town to attend high school. When she relents, Elnora's nightmarish first day is presented with all the cruelty which young people and insensitive adults can direct at somebody different.

But the girl has a sense of self that makes her stick things out. She meets a fortunate role model in the character of author Porter (Joanna Cassidy), a naturalist/photographer interested in Elnora's intimate knowledge of the Limberlost swamp, and also encounters a music teacher (Daryl Anderson) who provides Elnora with some knowledge of her father.

Why her mother is so mean, how the family will stave off both timber harvesters and the tax man, and whether Elnora will be able to continue her studies are the questions to be answered by the movie. It does so in pretty predictable fashion but offers some worthwhile messages along the way, especially an environmental sensitivity in Cassidy's character that certainly was a voice in the wilderness in 1908.

The high-quality 3-year-old "WonderWorks" series moved from a weekly to roughly a monthly format this season. The next "WonderWorks" presentation is scheduled on MPT later this month. "The Silver Chair," volume four in C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia," will air at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26. Future "WonderWorks" include a Black History Month drama, "T.J.'s Turn in Time, in February. "Lantern Hill" in March, "A Cry in the Wild" in April and a yet-to-be announced entry in May.

Many works in the series have also been brought out on home video, including tonight's "Limberlost." Among the other Public Media Video titles from past "WonderWorks" airings are: "Hiroshima Maiden," "Jacob Have I Lived" (filmed on Maryland's Eastern Shore), "Sweet 15," "Walking on Air," "Waltzing Through the Hills," "And the Children Shall Lead," "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency," "A Little Princess" and "Miracle at Moreaux."

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