Sometime around 1588, the first English settlement in America at Roanoke Island, N.C., vanished in one of the great historical puzzles of all time. The so-called "Lost Colony," subject for decades of an annual summer drama on the Outer Banks and grist for generations of American history teachers, comes to television tonight in a three-part "American Playhouse" beginning at 9 on PBS.
Written and directed with maddening obsession for the pettifoggery of Elizabethan politics and little for the horror and passions of those adrift in a howling wilderness, "Roanoak" emerges as an ambitious and vaguely intriguing but leaden-paced effort unlikely to help repair America's widening rift with its own past.
It is hard to see how writers Dina Harris and James K. McCarthy could have missed with even an outline of the story. An expedition sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh lands on the Carolina coast south of the intended destination of Chesapeake Bay, returns to England with two Indians and ventures again to Roanoke Island first for gold, then for colonization. But when the governor makes a journey back to England to pry more supplies and support from Raleigh and his backers, he is delayed by court politics and the Spanish Armada. When he does return three years later to what was then all Virginia, he finds only the word "Croatan" carved in a tree. About 200 colonists have disappeared, including his granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.
The mystery of Roanoke Island has been teasing imaginations for close to 400 years, and the outdoor pageant in Manteo, N.C., plays to capacity crowds every summer. But "Roanoak's" colonists are such a garrulous, emotionless lot it's almost a relief in the third hour to be rid of them. When a defenseless member of their company is murdered by Indians, the Roanokers confront the deed with the sort of indignant irritation they might reserve for, say, a stolen wimple.
Still, there are things that make "Roanoak" worth a look, particularly in tonight's opening episode. For one thing, it is gorgeously photographed in the misty pine forests, sedge-covered dunes and wave-lapped beaches of the Carolina coast, which through Misha Suslov's cameras looks not unlike the Eden the colonists claimed to have found.
For another, the drama may be the first to view the English colonists through the eyes of the Native Americans who met them. Harris and McCarthy have bent over backwards to catch the initial wary fascination of the Indians with the English, as well as their ultimate sense of betrayal and insistent vengeance. They even cast real Indians in the roles, drawing a large group of Indian actors from the Lumbee community of North Carolina, some of whom believe themselves direct descendants of the Croatan tribe that met the Roanokers. The Indian characters even speak Ojibwe (over English subtitles), an Algonquian dialect believed close to that spoken by the tribes around Roanoke Island 400 years ago.
As worthy an effort as it is, the Native Americanization of the Roanoke Island story is not entirely successful. The noble savages sound a little too noble -- though no more stilted than the English -- and wear the flaccid muscles and potbellies of men long divorced from the hunt and the warpath.
Tino Juarez as Manteo and Joseph Runningfox as Wanchese, however, do creditable jobs as the two Indians who travel to England to learn the white man's language and intentions and return with different glimpses of the future.
On the English side, Victor Garber as artist and later Gov. John White seems most believable, doing the best he can with lines like "Let your New World spirit soar!" The others are less successful. At one point Taryn Grimes as his daughter Eleanor (Virginia Dare's mother) says, "Fear not, father, we're all in God's hands." Viewers may find that small comfort.