It's a wonderful life out in the 'burbs. Mom and Dad own a real estate agency, and business is booming. The two boys are in the Little League, and the Saturday afternoon game just ended. Dad has dropped everybody off and is on his way to pick up a pizza for dinner.
That's when all the squad cars arrive and forcibly arrest Mom. That's when the boys find out she is a fugitive, convicted of armed robbery 10 years ago.
It happened in real life that way, more or less, in Severn in 1988 in the widely publicized case of Kay Smith. It will happen exactly that way at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) in "Woman With a Past," starring Pamela Reed.
The link between the real story and the made-for-TV version is award-winning journalist Art Harris. He interviewed Smith and told her story in a 1989 profile for the Washington Post. He also is the supervising producer of tonight's film for NBC. (Smith did get paid for the rights to use her story, but both Harris and NBC said that she did not want to participate in publicity connected with the film).
In a telephone interview, Harris said the changes from real-life to docudrama were minor. In real life, Smith's husband did not own a real estate agency; he was a truck driver. But she was a highly successful real estate agent. The part of the real-life story that took place in Maryland is transplanted to Connecticut in the film.
In general, docudrama, with its blending of fact and fiction, is a troubling form of TV storytelling, but for most viewers the facts of the case probably don't matter all that much. What matters is whether or not the TV version is good viewing. Tonight's film is not "Burning Bed" or "The Final Days," which were top-of-the-line docudrama. But it's a cut above the pack in at least two important ways.
Reed turns in an impressive performance of sustained intensity. And both the script and direction manage to see and show much of this story from a woman's point of view in a way you seldom see on TV. At points tonight, some viewers will be reminded of little moments in "Thelma and Louise," when you saw a domestic scene or even a criminal act from the woman's viewpoint -- maybe for the first time.
The director and two of three screenwriters for "Woman With a Past" are women, and it makes a difference. In fact, the feminist edge is mainly what distinguishes this film in a sea of "sweeps" docudrama.
That edge, though, is also what might make some viewers question it. Reed's character -- Dee Wallace in the film -- is a sympathetic one.
She married young and poor to a man who beat her and their two boys. One day, the abusive father took the boys and threw her out. The male-dominated legal system wouldn't help get her boys back. So, she essentially fell into a life of crime through depression over losing her boys, and a need to get the money to hire someone to find them.
Then she walked away from a work-release program in South Carolina, where she was serving the tail end of an armed robbery charge, because she wanted to save her boys from their abusive father.
During the 10 years from the time of her escape to the time of her arrest in front of her suburban home, she was a model of industry and sobriety, who did it all to make a good home for the boys. Dee Wallace may strike some viewers as being too much a victim of bad men in this telling of her story.
In the end, because it's a docudrama, we cannot say with certainty what's true and what's not. We can read the news accounts, ask folks like Harris, but it's still not knowing. As for viewing, "Woman With a Past" is a powerful story seen with a fresh eye and told with a feminist edge.