Kathy Bates, in an adventurous directing debut, brings imagination and unexpected freshness to that otherwise minimalist genre known as the short dramatic monologue.
The challenge for new director Bates must have been shaping and intensifying the seductive, often astonishing six mono-dramas titled "Talking With" by pseudonymous playwright Jane Martin.
Bates first saw Martin's play at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1981 and has said she "knew I was hearing an original American voice." Happily, Bates and some very gifted actresses have turned that voice into viable television.
The result, on "Great Performances" tonight, imaginatively avoids the monotony of talking heads. But that's not surprising given the on-camera talent here (Beverly D'Angelo, Celeste Holm, Frances McDormand, Mary Kay Place, Marcia Gay Harden and Bates herself in a boisterous vignette of a fading rodeo queen who refuses to dress up for ersatz New Age rodeo shows "like Minnie damn Mouse in a tutu").
As these women's portraits separately unspool, they also coalesce in a kind of unity. For instance, McDormand's Old Testament-crazed Southern snake handler, Place's enraptured baton twirler or the cool D'Angelo's sensual obsession with exposing her gorgeous body tattoos each come to share an epiphany of sorts.
Their fascination with vipers, tattoos or bucking broncos are spiritual metaphors. Holm's loft full of lamps and Place's erotic "twirling," as she enthuses, "is like being inside the baton, twirling with God."
What's technically so pleasurable is that Bates, cinematographer Jean Lepine and editor Girish Bhargava create an actor's veritable casebook of the distinguishing close-up, the liquidity of camera movement and whatever the aerodynamics of good acting is all about.
* "Talking With" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and at 9 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.