Any program that features Ellen Burstyn and Madge Sinclair can't be a total loss. These two treat "Look Away" (Channel 28 at 9 p.m.) as if it were a significant drama. It isn't anything of the kind, but it does serve as a flashy showcase for Burstyn in particular, and as a warm-hearted look at the ties of female friendship across barriers of race and class.
Burstyn's Mary Todd Lincoln is wasting away at a mental hospital in Illinois in 1875; her son had her committed. Her former dressmaker and friend, ex-slave Elizabeth Keckley (Sinclair), comes to help her gather her wits in preparation for the hearing that will determine her fate.
Rather than focusing on the drama inherent in the hearing and in Lincoln's clash with her son, writer Cynthia Whitcomb--adapting a 1973 Broadway play by Jerome Kilty--devotes most of the script to reminiscences of past events. Some of these memories make good stories, especially as told by Burstyn and Sinclair. But they would make better stories if they were told in the present tense, in a conventional, large-cast narrative instead of in this rarefied, remember-when duologue.
Director Arthur Allan Seidelman adds occasional glances of other characters, who dissolve briefly into the primary image as if they're figments of dreams, and the lighting changes according to the content of the memories. But these moments are too negligible to stir up this static script, and nothing gets in the way of the expected ending.
Julian Fowles produced "Look Away" for KCET, which will repeat it Sunday at 3 p.m.