By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 05, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s been hard to get a fix on Mary McDonnell, if only because her roles have been a little drippy: She was the New Age Pocahontas in Dances With Wolves and the housewife who developed a beamy-eyed obsession with an abandoned infant in Grand Canyon. Now, though, Passion Fish should bring her into focus. Written and directed by John Sayles, this quiet, leisurely drama gives McDonnell the best full-scale part she has had. She plays May-Alice, a tart-tongued New York City soap opera actress who has been paralyzed from the waist down in a freak traffic accident. Returning to the Louisiana bayou country in which she was raised, she shuts herself up in her stately old family manse and proceeds to spend the days guzzling wine, watching TV, and making unguarded wisecracks to a series of goofy, distracted nurses (whom she keeps firing). Then, finally, she hires a nurse who can handle her. Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) is calm, reflective, and nearly monosyllabic; she is black; and she takes absolutely no guff. As it turns out, she, too, is looking for a kind of cure.

Few things connect with an audience more potently than an actor’s anger, and in the first part of Passion Fish, McDonnell, letting her venom leak out in Southern-cured drops, creates a funny, harrowing portrait of a woman who pulls herself through each day by allowing her natural bitchiness to overwhelm her personality. McDonnell doesn’t have to show us a single tear. By reveling in the dark vibrance of May-Alice’s resentment, she reveals fully everything the character thinks she has lost. Once Chantelle has prodded her enough, May-Alice begins to come around, and McDonnell keeps adding new colors — she’s like a beautiful but ravaged flower regaining its petals.

Passion Fish has many zesty and enjoyable scenes, such as the one in which May-Alice is visited by her New York actress buddies, who remind her of all the headaches she left behind (which isn’t to say she doesn’t miss those headaches). Much of the time, though, Sayles orchestrates the film like a liberal shell game. Passion Fish is an assemblage of overly familiar devices — a paraplegic who learns to embrace life; a rich white woman and a poor black woman who become soul mates — that remain cleverly concealed, or at least underplayed. We’re meant to give Sayles points for not manipulating us too brazenly. I’d have been more grateful, though, if everyone on screen weren’t so virtuous, and if the movie were less meandering. Who is Alfre Woodard supposed to be playing here, anyway? As Chantelle, she’s so stoic and self-righteous, her voice a low fluty hum of courage, that she could practically be a mother superior. Then we hear about Chantelle’s past, and it’s a mail-order catalog of addiction and dysfunction. Like many Sayles films (though not the best ones, Baby, It’s You and City of Hope), Passion Fish makes an issue of its own sensitivity. But McDonnell’s performance burns with a pure flame. B