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TV Reviews : ‘Silence at Bethany’ a Slow-Moving Religious Drama

Things move a little slower in a Mennonite community than they tend to in the surrounding world. Things move a lot slower than they ought to in “The Silence at Bethany,” an “American Playhouse” film centering on a crisis of conscience in just such a community.

It takes an almost religious sense of devotion to stick out this religious drama’s overly idyllic first hour, but once the conflict finally kicks in, the picture’s last suspenseful stretch turns into a compelling indictment of fatal legalism. It airs from 9-10:30 tonight on Channels 28 and 15.

When young Ira Martin (Mark Moses) shows up in a 1939 Pennsylvania town to deliver a tractor to a Mennonite farmer, he’s warned by a waitress of the peculiarities of the local religious sect. But no warning is necessary: It turns out Martin was born among the Mennonites, and as a man he promptly decides to set aside his secular city ways, be baptized and rejoin the community he knew as a boy.

The loveliest of the local lasses (Susan Wilder) soon becomes his bride, and difficulties in adjusting to this more strict life style are few--so few, in fact, that Martin is eventually called into service as his congregation’s new preacher.

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Sailing is smooth--in dramatic measure, maybe too smooth--until Martin is drawn into a controversy over observance of the Sabbath. His uncle, the bishop, is demanding that a dairy farmer stop working on Sundays, but the farmer’s business will certainly be ruined if he can’t work seven days a week. It’s the flip side of the core dilemma in “Chariots of Fire,” with--one can predict--lesser chance of a compromise that can satisfy all parties involved.

Taking sides with the beleaguered farmer, this reluctant preacher finally finds his “calling,” but almost simultaneously finds himself silenced for disobedience. Martin must decide whether to acquiesce to the letter of the law, however wrongheaded, or watch his family and church possibly go down in righteous ruination.

“Bethany” has been directed with careful elegance--if occasional tepidness--by Joel Oliansky from a script by Joyce Keener. Acting and technical credits are fine all around, save for the incongruity of a strangely dissonant music score from Lalo Schifrin.


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