By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 25, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Although she died two years ago, Gillian Lewis (Michelle Pfeiffer) is still very much alive for her grieving husband, David (Peter Gallagher), in To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. She appears most nights, lit in complexion- enhancing moonlight, near their pretty Nantucket beach house, following in the supernatural footsteps of Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply. Gillian was an exotic, foolish gal (she insisted on climbing the mast of their lovely boat, and fell to her death). But now she’s gone. And the living are still suffering — most poignantly, the Lewises’ teenage daughter, Rachel (Claire Danes), who could really use a father who doesn’t mope around talking to dead people.

Adapting Michael Brady’s 1984 stage play, talented television creator David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences) has written his first screenplay as a gift, you might say, to his wife, Michelle, on or around her 39th birthday. But sometimes gift roles are not all they’re wrapped up to be, even when given by what songwriter Christine Lavin would call ”Sensitive New Age Guys.” Under the direction of Kelley’s Fences colleague Michael Pressman, Pfeiffer appears constrained by the story’s requirement to be all luminous, all the time. Gallagher is more like a sprite chasing a butterfly than a man missing a woman. Emmy-winning Fences ensemble member Kathy Baker is done no favors in her position as the heavy — Gillian’s sister, who thinks Rachel needs a more stable home life.

The one who triumphs, though, is the exceptionally talented Danes, from TV’s My So-Called Life and, soon, Romeo and Juliet. Carrying this one-Puffs weeper on her own young shoulders, she makes Rachel at once lively and needy; her pain, unlike that of her father, feels real. Danes keeps Gillian from evaporating completely in a shroud of sappiness. She’s a flesh-and-blood girl in a family of well-dressed undeads. C+