Beth Howland played timid Vera the waitress on "Alice" for nine long years. The role paid the bills, she noted, but came nowhere near to displaying her range as an actress.

Series star Linda Lavin went on to Broadway and garnered a Tony Award. But Howland, "tired of sitting around waiting for the gods to smile," did local theater in Southern California and formed a production company with a friend.

When this week's role in an ABC Afterschool Special, "Terrible Things My Mother Told Me," came along, Howland said she "jumped at the chance because I never get to play anything but sweet." Her part this time is decidedly not sweet: She's a demanding, autocratic woman whose treatment of her elder daughter qualifies as emotional and psychological child abuse.

ABC will air the special Wednesday at 4; WJLA will delay the telecast until Friday afternoon.

Howland stars as Eleanor Flemming, a single working mother with two daughters, 16-year-old Julia, played by Katherine Kamhi, and 10-year-old Katie (Ita de Marco).

The story, produced in Virginia Beach by the Christian Broadcasting Network, focuses on Julia, who functions as homemaker and babysitter to her younger sister. She's obedient and tries hard to win her mother's love. But when she is chosen to play the lead in a student-made film at school, she finds that her mother comes down even harder on her, telling her that her responsibilities at home must come first.

Help from well-meaning friends -- the student-director, his mother, and the teacher-advisor -- backfires as Eleanor Flemming loads her daughter with guilt.

Howland said that in the story, the Flemmings live in the house where Eleanor grew up, a house filled with the unhappy memories of Eleanor's own girlhood and a mother who criticized, belitted and chastised her. Eventually, of course, she comes to realize that she is putting her daughter through the torture that her mother exacted on her.

The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse defines emotional abuse as including "excessive, aggressive or unreasonable parental demands that place expectations on a child beyond his or her capabilities. Emotional abuse can show itself in constant and persistent teasing, belitting or verbal attacks. Emotional abuses also include failures to provide the psychological nurturance necessary for a child's psychological growth and development -- no love, no care, no support, no guidance."

"I think it tells a good story," said Howland. "It's the girl, the daughter, who goes and seeks help, and no one is seen as the villain. Ultimately you come to understand {the mother's} side of it."

The story has nothing to do with her own upbringing in Boston, said Howland, where she was the only child of a career Army father and a mother who worked with a publishing company. Dad traveled, but "my mother and I managed to stay in Boston," Howland said. She attended a small, Catholic girls' school, Mount St. Joseph Academy, where two nuns helped nurture the aspiring actress' career.

Howland, who has appeared in four Broadway shows, off-Broadway and other New York productions, and regional theater, is best known to television audiences as Vera, the impressionable, scatter-brained waitress at Mel's Diner she played for nine years on "Alice." She also showed up in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Love Boat," "Eight Is Enough," a number of celebrity shows including "Night of 100 Stars," the 1981 and 1983 Tony Awards, the 1985 Emmy Awards, and PBS' "You Can't Take It With You," "Working," and "Sylvia Fine Kaye's Musical Comedy Tonight."

With friend Jennifer Warren, she has formed a production company, Tiger Rose, named "after two of our dogs." Their first project is to be based on My Book for Kids With Cancer, written by an 8-year-old boy in Minnesota who has survived a cancerous tumor.

"We want to make an animated film out of his book to use in hospitals and schools. We'll make a documentary with Jason and his family. He has a twin, and his brothers did the illustrations for the book. Yesterday the Mayo Clinic called and is going to give us some money." She envisions the documentary as appearing on educational channels or on PBS stations.

Howland seemed pleased at the possibility of being able to do something that could help children with cancer. She has also made a public service announcement to go with the ABC special this week, leading viewers to Child-Help's 800-number for abused children.