Fine acting, good dialogue give 'Road to Galveston' a right turn TV preview: Cicely Tyson plays her part with strength and conviction -- but it's the other woman's story we want to know more about.

January 24, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

There's a good story being told in "The Road to Galveston," but there's an even better story struggling to get out.

Loosely based on the life of screenwriter Tony Lee's grandmother, this quietly inspiring film, airing at 9 tonight on USA, marks something of a departure for the cable network, whose films are usually flimsy potboilers or unimaginative shoot-'em-ups. Its failure to be all it could is less a testimony to the film's shortcomings than its high aspirations; you'll enjoy this movie, be impressed by the fine acting and believable dialogue.

But you'll also wish it had told you more. Depicting the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease, which this film does well, is fine.

But one character in "Galveston" is a former English professor who knows full well she's losing her mind. In what is treated as only a minor plot point, she's keeping a journal, writing down everything she can, realizing she may not remember any of it an hour later.

The movie's biggest problem -- in fact the only real problem -- is that this woman, one of its minor characters, is more interesting than its major one, the woman taking care of her. That journal should be more than just a convenient thing for this woman to lose, thus giving her an excuse to get mad. I kept wanting to know what she was writing down, how it felt for her to read it. That, it seems, would offer some poignant insights into the disease.

Cicely Tyson plays Jordan Roosevelt, a Texas woman struggling to keep her farm after the death of her husband. Desperate to keep up with mortgage payments, she decides to turn the house into a residential care facility for women with Alzheimer's.

She takes on three patients: Gayle (Sally Ellis), a woman whose condition is so advanced all she can do is sit in a chair and stare; Wanda (Piper Laurie), who babbles incoherently and has little idea of what's going on around her, but still gets around OK; and Julia (Tess Harper), the middle-aged English professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's.

Despite Jordan's best efforts, the money refuses to start flowing in. Knowing she'll soon lose both the farm and her independence, she decides on one last fling: A road trip to Galveston and the water, using a few hundred dollars her husband had squirreled away for just such a trip.

It's hard to speak ill of "The Road to Galveston." Tyson can be both a great and a mediocre actress; her worst moments come when she presses too hard on the "emote" button. But here, she keeps the histrionics in check, to good results.

Her Jordan Roosevelt is no caricature; she's a strong woman with a stubborn streak a mile wide who's willing to accept people for who they are (except for her son and family, that is). That, of course, makes her an ideal caretaker for Alzheimer's patients so addled their actions would try even the kindest of souls.

Harper does well with a part that really is underwritten. Laurie shines in a role that offers her no more than a line or two of intelligible dialogue. And Stephen Root (the station owner on "NewsRadio") has some nicely poignant moments as Wanda's son; when he says good-bye to his mother, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

"The Road to Galveston" stumbles a bit at the end, with the addition of a former love interest for Wanda that comes out of nowhere, and a treacly scene on the beach at Galveston. But the film deserves applause for having honorable intentions that it very nearly achieves.

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