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Detached but haunting treatment of a 19th-century short story

Like ``Noon Wine,'' the American Playhouse production that came before it, The Joy That Kills (PBS, Monday, Jan. 28, 9-10 p.m.) passes before you in a strangely disengaged fashion, as though you were watching something through the wrong end of a telescope. This television adaptation of a short story by Kate Chopin, a 19th-century writer, deals in heavy-handed symbolism, which probably accounts for the distance between viewer and play. Yet at the same time, once you've seen it, a haunting memory remains.

It is a simple enough tale.

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Louise Mallard (Frances Conroy) has had heart trouble all her life. She has never left the French Quarter of New Orleans. For three years, she and her husband, Brently (Jeffrey DeMunn), have lived what others call ``a miracle marriage.'' They have not spent one night apart. She sees the world through a stereoscope -- places along the Nile and in the heart of Paris -- and through the eyes of Brently, who has been to most of these places.

Louise longs to be free to travel. Her husband will not allow it, ostensibly because of her heart. But the more we learn about her, and them, the more we see that the pretext of her heart is only the lid on the cage trapping this precious bird.

``Do you know what I like about real estate?'' he asks her one afternoon, as he rhapsodizes over his business dealings. ``It's there.''

Indeed. And so is she. Right where he wants her when he comes home, along with the furniture, servants, and everything else that he owns. He adores her as much as he professes to, but with a warped and immature possessiveness. He keeps her like a hothouse flower. She must live through him. Which way did he walk home? She had pictured him coming down this particular street and across that particular square. Will he describe the colors for her in the stereoscope? Will he make it seem to move?

Now, playwrights from Ibsen to the present have traveled much the same ground. Kate Chopin, however, has earned a reputation as one of the pioneering ``feminist'' writers; and certainly this tart and pithy account of a woman's smothered existence bears out the reputation.

Her story marches irrevocably through some dark country. What illuminates the journey here is the exquisite performance by the gifted Miss Conroy and the economy with which Kate Chopin's tale peels back the layers of affection to find the fear, dread, and eventual hatred growing beneath. Much depends, in this elliptical drama, on the shadow of a smile, the drop of an eye, and Miss Conroy's face registers such events with spontaneity and conviction.

Tina Rathborne's direction (she also served as executive producer and co-writer) manages to create the almost airless little world in which Louise struggles, even though we find ourselves dealing with some stereotypical characters in the process.

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Everything seems so distant and fairytale-like. It is, after all, New Orleans, 1877, and another world. Far away. But, after you watch from your distance, you begin to think that maybe it's not so far away at all.

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