Picks and Pans Review: American Playhouse: Three Sovereigns for Sarah

updated 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Monday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET)

Last year American Playhouse won a well-deserved Emmy for its miniseries Concealed Enemies, the story of the Alger Hiss trials. This year Playhouse could win another with Three Sovereigns for Sarah, the story of 1692's Salem witch trials. (Witch-hunts are not all that American Playhouse does well.) Vanessa Redgrave stars as one of three sisters charged with witchcraft, the only one to escape the hanging tree. A decade after the witch hysteria ends, Redgrave appears before Patrick (The Prisoner) McGoohan, who's one of three English judges sent to the colonies to investigate the trials. She wants to tell the true story: how the madness began with some innocent girls' games of fortune-telling, and how local politics turned the games into grisly terror that killed 20. As she begins to talk, the scene shifts back to Salem, where young girls act possessed (overdoing it some with their screaming and wailing). With the help of the adults, the girls point accusing fingers at the unpopular people of the village. Sovereigns presents a quietly drawn but horrifying picture of evil people who see evil all around them. The show has been meticulously researched, but writer-producer Victor Pisano did not let musty historical details interfere with his drama. Unlike most historical minis, the dialogue in this one is rarely stilted; the people are real, brought to life by a first-class cast, including Phyllis Thaxter and Kim Hunter as Redgrave's sisters. Sovereigns is engrossing, great TV. (Parts Two and Three air on the following Mondays.)

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