Cornelia and George were indeed a pair, and it's no wonder that Big Love co-creator Mark V. Olsen is fascinated with them. For Alabamans, Cornelia will ever live in memory as the woman who threw herself on top of George Wallace when he was shot in Laurel, Maryland, while campaigning for the U.S. presidency in 1972. But, for Mr. Olsen, Cornelia Ellis Snively Wallace is a much more complex creature. Niece of "Big Jim" Folsom, Alabama's governor during the 1940s and '50s, Cornelia grew up in the governor's mansion, competed for the title of Miss Alabama, starred in the water ski show at Cypress Gardens, Florida, married the scion of a rich Florida family, had two sons and was then divorced.
Arriving at the home of her mother, "Big Ruby" Folsom Ellis, Cornelia immediately set her cap on Governor George Wallace, a widower whose first wife, Lurleen, won the Alabama governorship in 1966 as a surrogate for her termed-out husband and then died of cancer while in office. After a whirlwind but secret courtship, Cornelia became Mrs. George Wallace two weeks before the former governor was inaugurated to the office he once held.
Soon thereafter, the "Camelot couple of the South" set forth on a presidential campaign. It was the end of Richard Nixon's first term in office, the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate office complex had occurred but its impact had not yet been discovered. The Democrats were in disarray in the face of Nixon's forces, and the field of potential candidates was weak (Senator George McGovern was ultimately nominated, and his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton, had to resign when it was revealed that he had undergone electroshock treatment for depression). Into this void stepped the savvy, charismatic (and, in private, mean and racist) Alabama governor and his glamorous new bride. At first, the Wallace campaign exhibited a good deal of success, worrying party leaders greatly. But then came that fateful day in Laurel, and what effectively became the end of the Wallace campaign.
Mr. Olsen's method of character development involves giving each secondary character one quality to play and then adding at least one other quality that humanizes them. More major characters get more qualities. So, Cornelia's mother, Big Ruby (Beth Grant), is mostly a drunk but is humanized by being humorously outspoken and protective of her daughter. Gerald (T. Ryder Smith) is all politician, but he's humanized by being the governor's brother and confidante. Marie (Hollis McCarthy) is Gerald's mouse of a wife, who is redeemed by professing to like "wifely" tasks such as ironing and a loyalty to the first Mrs. Wallace that may or may not be admirable.
Governor Wallace is a more major character, and his role displays few stereotypical and a number of humanizing qualities, balanced by a violent temper and a tendency to become depressed. It is a highly believable role, and Mr. Foxworth plays it for more than its worth, a value-added performance if I ever saw one.
But Mr. Olsen really wants this play to be about Cornelia, so he not only piles on the qualities, he does so in opposites. Cornelia is, by turns, flirtatious and co-dependent, politically astute and politically naïve, loving and scheming, devoted to her husband and fiercely independent, highly lucid and more than a little crazy. These opposites might have been close to the truth, but they're too much for one character, and they literally overwhelm Melinda Page Hamilton, the actress who has been asked to play this jumble of contradictions.
Despite a central performance that breaks down, the production is a highly enjoyable one. Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the performers whirling through John Lee Beatty's extremely clever scenic design. Christopher Akerlind's lighting design changes the mood of the production on a dime, and Tracy Christensen's costumes are perfectly appalling examples of '70s style.
For lovers of political intrigue and for those who find George Wallace a fascinating man, this production is a winner. But its central character needs to be sorted out to a greater degree before Cornelia can lay claim to artistic success.
The Old Globe presents Cornelia, by Mark V. Olsen. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, with Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty, Costume Design by Tracy Christensen, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Sound Design by Paul Peterson, Original Music by Steven Cahill, Voice and Speech Coach Claudia Hill-Sparks.
With Melinda Page Hamilton, Beth Grant, Robert Foxworth, T. Ryder Smith, and Hollis McCarthy.
Performances now through June 21. Tickets $29-$76, on sale at (619) 23-GLOBE or through The Old Globe's website.