There's enough raw truth in "Rage," the NBC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 4, to make up for some weak moments, and once past a pokey opening, viewers are in for some moving and powerful television.

"Rage" is adroitly written (by George Rubino) and, we are told, carefully researched (on the spot by Rubino, producer Diane Silver and director Bill Graham). It is a fictional look at a unique psychiatric penal institution for rapists at Avenel, N.J. Its point of view is that of its protagonist, a 35-year-old working-class husband and father who loves his baby, doesn't like the idea of his wife working and, oh yes, goes around raping other women.

The Avenel facility is four years old. It is perhaps too soon to judge its success rate, although the hint of recidivism in the TV play probably bespeaks a lot more in real life.Residents at the center -- the real one is called, with some euphemism, the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center -- are there for "indeterminate" sentences. To gain release, they must convince a board of psychotherapists, as well as the state parole board, that they have been sufficiently "cured" of whatever suppressed rage and anger from their childhood is causing their uncontrollable compulsion to rape.

Protagonist to therapist: "Do I have to go [to the group]?"

Answer: "No."

"What happens if I don't?"


"How do I get out of this place?"

"You don't."

Therapy is conducted through a series of encounter groups, group therapy and sensitivity sessions sometimes with the therapist present and sometimes only monitored (via closed circuit TV cameras).

"Rage's" most powerful moments occur when it captures with stunning validity the dynamics of some of these sessions in which driven, anguished , sick creatures are forced (by theropists, by each other, by their own motivation to be free) to face the abomination their inner demons have driven them to perform. And, it is hoped, they will then exoricse these demons.

I don't know how many rapists do it because of repressed childhood trauma susceptible later to the psychic probe of peer and psychiatrist. Nor do we find out in this drama. And although there are black participants in the play's group sessions and black therapist on the review board, there is no delving into anything as painful as possible racial motivations. But then, the whole idea of the rapist's side of anything is kind of a can of worms all by itself.

David (Starsky and Hutch) Soul gives a fairly creditable performance as the convicted rapist. James Whitmore is a sympathetic shrink and Caroline ("Benson) McWilliams, the submissive wife who sticks by her man at least as long as she can hold onto the illusion that he's innocent -- despite trial, publicity and conviction. (We see no trial, of course, any more than we see any rapes, and there is that bit of a problem with David Soul's relentless nice-guy image.)

In other words, things are a little cleaned up in "Rage," maybe a little too much so.

I'm not at all certain it will find universal feminist approval, nor am I certain by any means that it should. The treatment of rape victims is still too spotty in this country, too often as spiritually destructive as the act itself, to permit all-out huzzahs for what some may see as a lot of public money and effect spent on the criminal while the victim is left to fend for herself.

On the other hand, that is what rehabilitaive penal systems -- and provocative television -- are all about.