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IN THE SPOTLIGHT

July 13, 1986

"THE DOLLMAKER," Monday, 8-11 p.m. (7)(3)(10)(42)--Following the recent gaudy hoopla over the Statue of Liberty, it's nice to find a story that reflects the true grit of America. Even if it is a repeat.

Jane Fonda is splendid as a rural woodcarver in this fine three-hour "ABC Theater" production--an adaptation of Harriet Arnow's novel, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn--that first aired in 1984. It is about a transplanted Kentucky family's struggle to survive in alien " Dee -troit" as World War II winds to a close.

When Clovis Nevels decides to do his part in the war effort by taking a mechanic's job in the north, the ever-obedient Gertie follows him with their five children. Once there, they lead a gloomy Quonset hut existence, beset by debts, anti-hillbilly prejudice, foul weather and family catastrophe.

Gertie's wood dolls are a metaphor for her pioneer-fierce spirit. She bends but won't break, refusing to surrender her independence and simple values in her new harsh, gray environment.

When an ignorant Northerner implies that the odd-sounding Gertie may be from Poland, she replies: "Kentucky's my country." You have to love that.

This is all high riding for Fonda, who dominates the production with a luminous performance of quiet, understated, down-home realism. Levon Helm is perfect as Clovis, and the children in the cast are from the South and ideally suited for their roles. There's some nice work, too, by the late Susan Kingsley as a neighbor and Geraldine Page as Gertie's wretched mother.

Daniel Petrie's direction is so true that you'd think he'd spent all his life "down the road a piece." The story he shapes is often teary and emotional, but its lumps in the throat are genuine and not the products of slick manipulation.

A swell three hours.

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