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DVD Review: ‘A Wind From The South’

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While delving in to one of the most interesting DVD sets released in recent years, The Criterion Collection’s The Golden Age Of Television, a viewer not only gets chance to experience the black and white kinescopes of a lost art form and great and rare works of art, but also lost works with moments of greatness in them. Such is the case with the fourth entry in the Criterion package, the presentation of A Wind From The South, first shown on The U.S. Steel Hour, September 14th, 1955. The 51-minute long teleplay was directed by Daniel Petrie and showcased the talents of Julie Harris, then the nation’s brightest rising Broadway star.

But the play, which follows the brief romance of the heart between an Irish innkeeper and one of her guests, gets kudos for initially seeming to give in to the conventions of the failed romance, only to subvert them almost as soon as they appear. The play opens on a squabbling Irish brother and sister, Liam (Michael Higgans) and Shevawn Flaherty (Harris). The two have converted the small home they inherited from their father into a country bed and breakfast called The Willows. Liam is embittered (from his own failed romance, we later learn) and loathes his life, whereas his sister enjoys the tourists who come to visit, living her life vicariously through their tales of world travel. She is a bit naïve and enjoys playing up (or down) to the tourists’ expectation of a ‘bonny colleen’. Yet, in reality, she is as lonely and frustrated as her brother. Both can barely eke out a living, and neither has a world much larger than the immediate surroundings. At one point, Shevawn mentions that she has not had time off in the eight or so years since her father died.

There are a couple of American couples visiting. One is an older pair, the Kellys, who seem to be enjoying their Golden Years. The husband is an extrovert who flirts with Shevawn, and the wife likes to go on and on about their beliefs and affairs, as if anyone really cares. The other couple is middle aged, Robert (Donald Woods) and Jean (Haila Stoddard). He is an ad executive who longs to be an artist, while his wife nags at him in a passive-aggressive manner. It turns out that he is going through what would later be termed a mid-life crisis, and from the moment he saw Shevawn, on the porch of the inn, he determined that he loved her. He does so by attempting to get her to come out of her shell. But, he tries to hide his love by setting her up with an American Serviceman he meets in the nearby town. Jack (James Congdon) asks Shevawn to a local dance, she accepts, and rebuffs him when he tries to kiss her.

When she returns that night, Robert inquires of their date, then confesses his love for her. She reciprocates, and they spend the evening down near a lake, even though both know he is leaving on the first train in the morning. While there, they both utter romantic banalities. Shevawn of the sort that a guileless girl finds desirous (that he has let her know true love, even if briefly, etc.), and he by quoting poems wholly inappropriate for the circumstance. In fact, given what is learnt of Robert’s past (a prior love affair the last time he visited Ireland, and his wife’s comments on his ‘settling’ for her) it is highly likely that he may only think his feelings for Shevawn are real. He may simply not even realize he is living out a fantasy.

And here is where the plot shows its mettle. A bad or mediocre writer would have made the two of them ‘follow their heart,’ and run off (as they discuss) to start a new life together; she abandoning her brother to his sorry lot in life, and he leaving his shrewish wife, for their fantasy. But Costigan shows he is not only not bad nor mediocre, but a very good writer, for in a scene, the next morning, Jean slyly confronts her husband, full well knowing of his affair of the heart, and needling him over the obvious pathetic nature of his ‘crush,’ and the inevitability of its end. But, he does not even stop there. Costigan beautifully conveys complexity by having Jean step too far, only to have Robert respond with his own naïve-te, by declaring that he loves Shevawn very much, and it is not just some summer fling. Jean is taken aback. She was well prepared to take her husband’s flesh straying, but when she realizes he seriously has feelings for the Irish girl, the look on her face is one of genuine disbelief and shock.

As they prepare to get in a car with the Kellys, to go to the train, Jean, in a sign of good will (which makes clear she actually wants her husband) allows him a moment to say goodbye to Shevawn. After they leave, Shevawn is left with her brother, who wants her to get back to work. She demands a few minutes before resuming. Liam mocks her feelings for Robert, declaring he was wise to it all, and that it was no secret. She tells him that she knows his secret, and asks him to not allow the two of them to get as bitter as an old Irish couple (also brother and sister) that busybodies their way about town. There is where the play ends.

The DVD has only one extra feature, an introduction to the play by talk show host Merv Griffin recorded for a PBS rebroadcast in 1981. Griffin, was a singer in the 1950s, and performed the teleplay’s theme song, A Soft Day. Again, Criterion misses a truly golden opportunity to give background on this almost forgotten slice of American television history, via a commentary from a television historian or critic. Director Petrie wisely attempts no visual theatrics with his camera, letting the power of the situation, actors, and Costigan’s writing carry the day. It is a drama that is ‘adult’ in the non-pornographic sense of the term. Visually, this fourth kinescope in the DVD set fares a bit better than the others, with fewer imperfections, although it is a much brighter print, and, in a few spots, seems to glare a bit too lightly. Other than that, it is a step up from the other shows’ video quality.

A Wind From The South is a very good work of art, and, if it’s not immediately recognizable as a great one, it is only because it does not gut punch one with the raw personal emotion of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, nor move one with the righteous anger that Rod Serling’s Patterns does. But it is affecting, and like those two great dramas, it certainly makes one think, and think deeply. That plus terrific performances from the estimable Harris and underrated Woods, and a good argument can be made that it crosses the threshold of greatness. And, in that claim, I’m not inclined to counter.

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