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Review: 'Cornelia' at the Old Globe

May 25, 2009 |  4:00 am

Cornelia Reporting from San Diego — If there’s any justice, the Old Globe’s world premiere of Mark V. Olsen’s historical drama “Cornelia” will receive a slew of Emmy nominations. Especially deserving are the two leads, Robert Foxworth, who plays George C. Wallace, the notoriously segregationist governor of Alabama making a bid for the White House, and Melinda Page Hamilton, who plays his second wife, Cornelia Ellis, a former beauty queen contestant with ambitions every bit as hard-charging as her husband’s.

Before you start bombarding me with technicalities, I know that the Emmys are intended to reward excellence in television, not theater. But Olsen, the co-creator and executive producer of HBO’s “Big Love,” has written a fairly engaging teleplay, and I see no reason to deny his effort the validation it deserves simply because it’s floating around in the wrong medium. If the network and premium channel execs aren’t champing at the bit to green-light a marital soap opera between a race-baiting good ol' boy whose political dreams are challenged by a would-be-assassin’s bullet and an Anita Bryant look-alike who just wants to stand by the coronation of her man, well then, by all means, plunk it down on a stage, especially one equipped with the scenic maneuverability of John Lee Beatty’s attractive sets.

The drama was actually written expressly for the stage before Olsen’s TV triumph and put in a trunk after its theatrical hopes were repeatedly dashed. But in many respects, the play prefigures Olsen’s small-screen success. “Cornelia” works all the angles, including the prurient ones, to hook us at the start. Olsen has that HBO knack of instantaneously revealing a character’s most piquant colors. We learn about the erotic proclivities of these electric eccentrics with the same alacrity that we discover the vulnerabilities that they’ll fight tooth and nail to protect.

Cornelia 2 The excitement peters out after Wallace is shot  in Maryland while campaigning for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. From this point on, it’s all about the increasingly toxic relationship between two towering personalities who are no longer able to spur each other to new heights. 

The cast is small — just five in total, with Beth Grant in the corker role of Ruby, Cornelia’s live-wire lush of a mother; T. Ryder Smith as George’s watchdog brother, Gerald; and Hollis McCarthy as Gerald’s sex-starved wife, Marie, who becomes a female shoulder for Cornelia to cry on. Director Ethan McSweeny expertly corrals their talents in his vividly acted production, which moves crisply even when the dramatic point of the chronicle gets extremely fuzzy in the second half.

Not surprisingly, Olsen encounters the problem that bedevils nearly all purveyors of historical fiction — how to meaningfully structure a plot while remaining faithful to the outline of real-life events. The public record can easily derail the train of a writer’s creative thought, though in this instance there's another distracting issue going on: Olsen has chosen a story line whose domestic preoccupations seem trivial when set against the broader political concerns of the material.

Wallace isn’t just an abusive, despotic husband who apparently drove his first wife, Lurleen, his successor in office, into an early grave; he’s also the governor whose first term was darkened by the church bombing in Birmingham that left four young African American girls dead and the violence at Selma that further galvanized the civil rights movement. Olsen picks up the narrative later on, spanning the period from 1970 to 1977 when Wallace’s aspirations were set on the presidency. But Wallace’s shortcomings as a spouse are still less consequential than the divisive tactics he would more subtly employ to win over bigoted voters across the land.
Olsen presents Wallace through Cornelia’s eyes as an “opportunist” who “doesn’t even have the principles to be a racist.” But this characterization doesn’t dismiss all the lingering questions about Wallace’s Machiavellian nature. And while it might have been interesting to dramatically explore the relationship between egregious public policy and loathsome private conduct, the playwright opts instead to focus on the Alabama first lady, the woman Merv Griffin once besottedly called “Wallace’s secret weapon.”

Cornelia is indeed a fascinating figure, but Olsen would like her to approach Tennessee Williams proportions without putting in the requisite poetic work. (The character’s opening and closing monologues have a perfunctory quality.) This is a conventional, if unconventionally sexed-up, portrait of a woman reaping the consequences of her ill-considered choices while still trying to prove that her love, no matter how self-serving, is genuine.

There are plenty of sharply funny lines and springy bedroom confrontation scenes for Foxworth’s bull-terrier George and Hamilton’s glamorous battler Cornelia to make the most of — and it’s fun to imagine  how well their performances would play on the flat screen. But imagine if Shakespeare had told “Richard III” through the unhappily wedded experience of Lady Anne. “Cornelia” serves as a model of narrowly tailored dramatic effectiveness — and an object lesson in its limitations.
-- Charles McNulty

"Cornelia," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.  7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends: June 21. Tickets: $29 to $76. (619) 234-5623 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Top: Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton. Bottom: Hamilton and Beth Grant. Credit: Craig Schwartz