In one of the first scenes of "Come Along With Me," a delightful short drama on WETA (Channel 26) at 9 p.m. tonight, Estelle Parsons' husband is being eulogized as a man who believed that painting and humanity are a "sum of many parts." Well, the total measurement must be applied to plays and short stories, and this one misses being excellent because the story has a fuzzy and disappointing climactic scene.
The story, which was directed by Joanne Woodward and is billed as her first television special, is a fast-paced encounter with a madcap widow, played by Parsons, who is glad old Huey has passed so she can adopt a new identity and practice her clairvoyant talents. Parsons is perfectly mischievous as she throws paintbrushes onto the coffin, sells the family homestead, burns Huey's paintings, and communes with him from the hereafter. Acquaintances in her new life include Barbara Baxley and Sylvia Sidney, two acting veterans who match Parsons' precision with their own spare interpretations of eccentricity.
The talent in this installment of the American Playhouse series is top-notch. In this one-hour play, Woodward exhibits a deft and assured control. The main shortcomings are in the story, which Woodward helped adapt from an unfinished novel by Shirley Jackson. After she moves and plucks a new name from thin air, Parsons rents a room from Baxley. The rooming house is a house of characters, including Baxley's disabled son, a flirtatious fur salesman, a bookstore manager, played by Sylvia Sidney, and a cello-playing accountant. They complement one another: Parsons with her daffy chuckle; Sidney with her wicked, jealous glances; and Baxley with her stiff tolerance.
When Parsons arrives to rent a room, she and Baxley have a nonsensical conversation about relatives and diseases. Baxley reaches her limit when psoriasis of the scalp is mentioned and curtly says, "I'm sorry about your uncle, do you want the room or not." It is the kind of subtle, economical humor that is most often lost in the quick slapstick of sitcom that shines here. Later, the same skill is used when Parsons plans a Saturday night seance, and Baxley says, "Anything you raise by way of spirits you have to put back yourself."
At the seance, Parsons uses her lifelong skill of hearing voices, which is romantically established by a series of black-and-white flashbacks. But the intentional unraveling of the seance is so confusing that it doesn't leave the punching impact needed to justify Parsons' departure to start another life. If you don't mind an occasional missing motivation, "Come Along With Me" will show the ongoing strength of refined acting and quiet humor.