photos by Craig Schwartz
Above, from top: Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton; Melinda Page Hamilton; Melinda Page Hamilton and Beth Grant; T. Ryder Smith and Robert Foxworth.
Excerpts from the reviews
Full reviews are below
“Rough sex. Political lies. A scheming vixen. A racist with presidential dreams. A drunken, loose-lipped mother-in-law. A brother with ties to the Klan. The Kingdom of Alabama in the 1970s. Playwright Mark Victor Olsen has the makings of a good soap opera, but in the world premiere of Cornelia, now at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, the soap doesn’t bubble as frothily as it could, due of to a nearly three-hour script — one that also needs more juice from Ethan McSweeny’s direction to be fully effective. . . . In the end, Cornelia seems like a good first draft of a play, but Olsen has much work left to do before sending the Wallaces out on the road.” Rob Stevens, Theatremania
“There are bits and pieces of sympathy for the late Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in Mark V. Olsen’s play “Cornelia,” now at the Old Globe. I’m not buying it. I was there. . . . All we see is vultures tearing at each other. Without even a smidgeon of virtue, the spectacle is dour indeed. And ultimately disgusting. . . . Robert Foxworth as Gov. Wallace does a splendid job of acting, choking back his diet of bile and pain with reptilian impatience. Melinda Page Hamilton prances about with vulgar vitality in the title role . . . The two are well-matched and their gross passions give the play whatever impact it has. The other actors must carry assorted loads of exposition while limited to a single character. . . . Why spend this much time with people who so obviously – and thankfully – end up as such losers? “ Welton Jones, SanDiego.com
“Satisfy your craving for lurid, big-hair, Reagan-era melodrama with “Cornelia,” in which a pair of conniving climbers spar over sex and politics with the soap-operatic relish of TV’s Ewings and Carringtons feuding over sex and oil money. But if it’s serious theater you’re after, the new play “Cornelia” by Mark V. Olsen ain’t it. . . . “Cornelia” is no documentary, nor was it meant to be; but it lacks the dramatic weight of its subject matter. . . . Robert Foxworth is a fine actor who brings a fullness, and now and again an ambiguity, to the role that the episodic, anecdotal writing doesn’t sustain . . . Still, despite the all-pro acting and design work and its sporadic entertainment value, in the end “Cornelia” is shallow and forgettable. The clanging, dissonant original music by Steven Cahill and the shrill sound by Paul Peterson only underscore the creaky melodrama of this ambitiously produced world premiere.” Anne Marie Welsh, North County Times
“It is 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. . . . Olsen has chosen a story line whose domestic preoccupations seem trivial when set against the broader political concerns of the material . . . Cornelia is indeed a fascinating figure, but Olsen would like her to approach Tennessee Williams proportions without putting in the requisite poetic work.” Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty – 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.
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. 05.25.2009
San Diego Union-Tribune, James Hebert – ‘Cornelia’ plunges crowd in the South of the ’70s. Like another famously single-minded, sweetly conniving Southern belle, Cornelia Ellis Snively just wants to get back home.
Cornelia’s version of Tara, though, is the tacky master bedroom of the Alabama governor’s mansion, and her Rhett is a race-baiting politician who is fond of dropping an f-word that is not “fiddle-dee-dee.”
One of the wonders of Mark V. Olsen’s “Cornelia,” which just began its world-premiere run at the Old Globe, is simply that it makes sense of the puzzling love affair between Gov. George C. Wallace and the water-skiing ex-beauty queen who would become his second wife.
Another wonder is that the play is even onstage. Olsen, co-creator of HBO’s “Big Love,” started work on “Cornelia” 20 years ago, and its production history rivals Wallace’s presidential bids for dashed hopes.
But the play proves worth the wait. “Cornelia” is like “Gone With the Wind” gone to tragicomic seed; it’s pulpy and poignant and, as directed by Ethan McSweeny, thick with the sticky intrigue and dirty politics of the early-’70s South.
It’s also performed with heaps of suthun style by the five-member cast. The second act could use a less languorous pace, and Olsen leans hard on his audience to fill in historical context. But in its smart and sometimes audacious way, “Cornelia” gets at plenty of funny and uncomfortable truths about love and politics.
In Olsen’s crafty conception, Cornelia’s lust for the governor is as much about the mansion as the man. There’s plenty of rationale for this idea; the real-life Cornelia grew up in the house, as a niece of widowed Gov. James “Big Jim” Folsom.
When the Folsom dynasty imploded, Wallace – once a protégé of Big Jim’s – built his own fiefdom, serving four terms as a fierce segregationist (not counting the proxy term of his first wife, Lurleen, who died in office in 1968).
“Cornelia” picks up in 1970, when Wallace is nearing his second term and eyeing a third presidential try. It’s also about a year before a would-be assassin will put him in a wheelchair – an event that in “Cornelia” separates Act 1 from the second, more somber half.
As played with a kind of ruthless charm by Melinda Page Hamilton, Cornelia goes for something south of the jugular in her pursuit of George (Robert Foxworth).
When he asks about her experience driving an Indy pace car, Cornelia’s response is beyond provocative: “They say I’m so fast they might have to put a governor on me.”
Hamilton’s performance develops beautifully into an internal war between her childlike need to go home and her highly developed sense of ambition. The versatile Foxworth makes an ideal foil as Wallace, conveying a complicated, controlling and emotionally stunted figure who almost visibly melts in Cornelia’s presence.
Still, it’s Beth Grant, as Cornelia’s vivacious and loose-lipped mother, Ruby, who nearly runs off with the show at times. She’s funny and raunchy and (half the time) tipsy, with a little squeak in her voice that just telegraphs trouble.
The ever-captivating T. Ryder Smith turns the difficult trick of making George look more human, as Gerald, the governor’s brother and mean cuss of a campaign manager. Hollis McCarthy plays his long-suffering wife with a primness that warms nicely to second-act sympathy for Cornelia.
Among the big hair and scary earth tones that immerse us in the time, John Lee Beatty’s busy but efficient set includes the distant, almost spectral image of the grand, white-columned mansion. Cornelia looks at it longingly, like Gatsby eyeing the light on Daisy’s dock.
Then, near play’s end, it fades out – a home that, for Cornelia, is gone for good.
SanDiego.com, Welton Jones – Wallowing in slime. There are bits and pieces of sympathy for the late Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in Mark V. Olsen’s play “Cornelia,” now at the Old Globe.
I’m not buying it. I was there.
Wallace was the worst sort of me-first opportunist, the kind with so few scruples that he truly wondered why anybody questioned his greasy expediency in his pursuit of power.
Not even Louisiana, from whence I watched Wallace’s early career in horror, could have produced such a baroque bigot. Mississippi, maybe. Where else? When Wallace declared, after his first defeat for governor, “I will never be outniggered again,” he was reversing a relatively benign public stance on racial integration with the cold calculation of what his voters wanted. That he later reversed himself again (and maybe yet again) simply proves his contemptible lack of principle.
Although he served as Alabama governor for 16 years in four terms across three decades and ran for president with some surprising success four times, he never was truly a threat to move far from Alabama. The audience he embraced – essentially unsophisticated racists – was a minority already shrinking.
At times, Wallace flirted with tragic status. His first wife was his successor in 1967, because he hadn’t yet dumped the state’s term limit, but she died of cancer while in office. In 1972, during his most successful presidential run, he was shot four times and permanently paralyzed. His second marriage, to the niece of his early political protégé, crashed in a tangle of accusations. His third wife, a country singer, lasted six years.
He died in 1998, aged 78, after years of constant pain and complications from Parkinson’s Disease.
The Globe play concentrates on that middle wife, an ex-beauty queen and professional water-skier named Cornelia Ellis Snively, the divorced niece of Gov. Big Jim Folsom. For a time there, she was seen as the “redneck Jackie Kennedy,” but little came of it.
For his play, Olsen picks up the story as the widower Wallace begins courting the divorced Cornelia, a spectacle as sexy as crocodiles copulating. All too soon, her ambition emerges as even more maniacal than his and, by the time the gunshot brings a welcome intermission, the downhill slide is inevitable.
This is no “Evita,” where the despots are seen reluctantly or unconsciously moving away from good intentions. All we see is vultures tearing at each other. Without even a smidgeon of virtue, the spectacle is dour indeed. And ultimately disgusting.
Act II reaches its pallid peak when Cornelia sings a reproduction of Tammy Wynette’s great “Stand By Your Man” for a television show, while Wallace seethes off camera with helpless frustration and loathing.
Robert Foxworth as Gov. Wallace does a splendid job of acting, choking back his diet of bile and pain with reptilian impatience. Melinda Page Hamilton prances about with vulgar vitality in the title role, finding that politics is like water-skiing: “The minute you stop going forward, you sink like a stone.”
The two are well-matched and their gross passions give the play whatever impact it has.
The other actors must carry assorted loads of exposition while limited to a single character. Thus Beth Grant, as Cornelia’s flamboyant mom, is comic relief, confidant and liberal conscience all at once, and with a certain flair.
No flair for T. Ryder Smith and Hollis McCarthy, playing Wallace’s brother/campaign manager and what seems to be his sister-in-law/housekeeper. He must represent various nuances of politics as usual while she serves as disapproving public, guardian of the late wife’s legacy and reluctant admirer in unmotivated sequence.
Ehan McSweeny does a workmanlike job of directorial traffic control around John Lee Beatty’s useful scenery, lit with little distinction by Christopher Akerlind who really blows the effect of a giant voting-returns map. Paul Peterson has the sound effects too loud and the spoken dialogue too soft but Tracy Christensen’s costumes are beyond reproach.
Finally, the question occurs: Why spend this much time with people who so obviously – and thankfully – end up as such losers?
San Diego Reader, Jeff Smith – Unexploited. On May 15, 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace had toned down his vein-bulging, racist views and began to rise in the opinion polls. He gave a speech at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. Arthur Bremer, whose diary inspired the movie Taxi Driver, fired four bullets at the Alabama Governor. Wallace’s wife, Cornelia, dove between the assassin and her husband, shielding his blood-soaked body with her life.
No matter what you thought of them at the time, it was hard to forget that.
Surprisingly, Mark V. Olsen’s play, Cornelia, world premiering at the Old Globe, doesn’t exploit this epic moment to the fullest. No Shakespearean wife (or ancient Roman or Greek) ever displays such selfless devotion. It would also help to counter the general impression the play creates: that Cornelia Wallace — née Ellis — was just a shallow, self-serving opportunist.
She grew up in a log cabin in Elba, Alabama. By the time she met Wallace, who was 19 years older, Cornelia had been married and divorced, with two sons. She placed second in a Miss Alabama contest, toured with country singer Roy Acuff, and was the star water-skier at Cypress Gardens. Her uncle, James “Kissin’ Jim” Folsom, had been governor of Alabama. The play says she could marry any man she wanted. But she eyed the white-columned mansion on a Montgomery, Alabama, hillside the way her favorite fictional heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, longed for Tara.
One of the play’s strengths is also a weakness. The Wallace’s are master reinventers. They change identities faster than changing clothes, donning whatever’s politically expedient at the time. In this sense, neither leads; public opinion dictates their every move (Wallace continued this flip-flop for the rest of his life: becoming born-again, espousing more moderate causes, even forgiving Bremer). The playwright has a scene where Cornelia advises her husband to abandon his black suits and wear milder, more audience-calming hues. When he does, Old Globe costumer Tracy Christiansen puts him in greens that blare like bullhorns.
Cornelia ups the ante when she moves beyond obsession with image and tries to control reality. Like a Pharoah, what she says is what must be: as when she vows fidelity to her husband and lies through her teeth; and when she’s on the floor, her black eye a totem of his abuse. When someone walks in, she says things aren’t what they seem — mythical thinking of a high order indeed.
The playwright builds Cornelia by her attributes, from selfless wife singing “Stand by Your Man” to wiretapping paranoid. But even though she narrates her story with Margaret Mitchell–tinged prose, in the end she’s little more than those sketchy surfaces, linked loosely by an over-riding opportunism — and you want to ask, okay, but who was she?
Melinda Page Hamilton’s portrayal adds to this perplexity. She plays Cornelia as unconnected sides — a hurt side, a scheming side — and subtext-free (Hamilton needs to project more; when a lead doesn’t, any noise in the house detracts, as they did on opening night). At various times she’s Scarlett O., or Jackie O., or — another revealing costume choice — Annie O. But her character makes sense, or gains depth, only in relation to her husband and their symbiotic dance of vipers.
From certain angles, Robert Foxworth looks eerily like Wallace: shoulders slightly hunched forward; a wave of brown hair cresting above his forehead; the rat-a-tat, but crystal clear, speech patterns. Foxworth never overplays the Governor (director Ethan McSweeny wisely pitches the play between Homer and Harold Robbins). Some of Wallace’s most chilling statements come off-the-cuff. If he has a problem, the governor will “have it killed or put in jail.” He doesn’t say that for effect.
“If he bit himself,” says Cornelia’s alcoholic mother Ruby, George Wallace would “need shots for rabies.” Big Ruby Folsum was larger than life. As written — and accentuated by Beth Grant’s hilarious, loose cannon approach — Ruby’s too large for Cornelia. The playwright gives her so many zingers that, by Act two, the comic relief upstages the drama — a modern instance of the Mercutio problem.
John Lee Beatty designed one of my all-time favorite sets for Redwood Curtain at the Globe — a giant sequoia tree trunk, which filled the stage, opened into a cabin for Act two. For Cornelia, parts and pieces of his designs roll on and intersect almost as fast as the Wallace’s switch identities.
I must confess to a fascination with Cornelia. You could call its genre mock-epic, or even epic-smarmy. You’d never expect Foxworth to utter “let Rome in Tiber melt” or Hamilton to dip her fingers in the asp basket, but on occasion, the parallels peek through. 05.27.2009
San Diego News Network, Pat Launer – Southern-fried sex, power and politics. A shocking saga of ambition, told through the eyes of Cornelia Ellis Snively, a former beauty queen, professional water skier, country singer, pace-car driver, synchronized swimmer, date of an Everly Brother and niece of progressive, two-term Governor Big Jim Folsom, who was bumped out of office by his protégé, the subsequent Alabama governor, George Wallace.
Known as C’nelia, the attractive striver would stop at nothing to become Wallace’s wife and get back into the governor’s mansion she loved so dearly in her youth. The three-dimensional, twinkly-light projection of that House on the Hill (attractive, gliding set by Tony Award-winner John Lee Beatty, bathed in the beautiful lighting of Christopher Akerlind) becomes the locus of passion, success, moral bankruptcy and marital ruin.
Wallace was coarse and racist, abusive, perhaps unfaithful and 20 years her senior, but in terms of ego, drive and opportunism, they were a perfectly matched set. Of course, when their political power-mongering began to clash, the whole arrangement came tumbling down. Cornelia was ultimately booted out of her “magical kingdom.” At the end of the play, in 1977, she seems to be in pretty dire straits. But she went on to live a good long time, and died at age 69, earlier this year.
Mark V. Olsen, co-creator of HBO’s big hit “Big Love,” lets the audience make up its own mind, about whether Cornelia’s mental breakdown was genetic, imagined, or orchestrated by the Wallace machine. He paints them both as sexual beings (their seduction scene sizzles), but everything changed after the bullets of a would-be assassin put Wallace in a wheelchair for life, and by this account, made him even nastier and more cold-blooded. It seems like he had a good head start. And Cornelia had her mother, Big Ruby Folsom, as a model, here portrayed as a tell-all, foul-mouthed alcoholic who couldn’t be trusted with her daughter’s — or anyone else’s — secrets.
In the play, which could use some judicious editing, this dominant triangle is offset by Wallace’s scheming, unscrupulous brother and his diffident wife. Both worked tirelessly for Wallace’s endless campaigns; even after the shooting in 1972, which ended that presidential bid, Wallace went on to run again in 1976. The character of Marie (Hollis McCarthy) seems extraneous, though she’s the only one who ultimately takes Cornelia’s side. T. Ryder Smith, who’s displayed consummate skills at the Globe before, in “Lincolnesque” (2006) and “In This Corner” (2008), has less to work with here, but he’s thoroughly convincing in his casual callousness. As Ruby, who serves as comic relief, Beth Grant is a scene-stealer whenever she’s onstage, and she’s tipsy or drunk most of the time.
But it’s George and Cornelia who rivet our attention. Robert Roxworth, a recent transplant to Encinitas, has been to the Globe multiple times, in plays modern, ancient and classic (from Brutus to a tic-ridden neurotic to Noël Coward’s elegant/bombastic Elyot in “Private Lives”). He’s also logged in a considerable amount of time on Broadway and on TV. He flawlessly captures Wallace, in all his crass, unprincipled ruthlessness. San Diegans may remember Melinda Page Hamilton in “Bell, Book and Candle” at the Globe (2007), in which she portrayed another seductive, charismatic character. Her Cornelia has a spine of steel and a single-minded, relentless pursuit of power and fame. And she has more than a touch of paranoia, which is what persuaded her to tap her husband’s phone. A explosive duo like that can only survive so long; the marriage lasted seven years, and it left her broke and bereft. In many ways, Cornelia’s story paralleled that of her favorite fictional character, Scarlett O’Hara. Her combustible relationship lives on in Olsen’s intriguing creation.
Ethan McSweeny directs with a deft touch, and the look of the piece (including the excellent costume design of Tracy Christensen) is striking. The sound (Paul Peterson, with evocative original music by Steven Cahill) was variable on opening night, but I’m sure that’s been ironed out by now. There are many power couples in history who are decidedly unsavory but larger than life: Antony and Cleo and the Macbeths spring to mind. Well, meet another pair whose ethics, morals, principles and politics may be questionable at best, but you’ll be fascinated and captivated nonetheless.
Theatremania, Rob Stevens – Rough sex. Political lies. A scheming vixen. A racist with presidential dreams. A drunken, loose-lipped mother-in-law. A brother with ties to the Klan. The Kingdom of Alabama in the 1970s. Playwright Mark Victor Olsen has the makings of a good soap opera, but in the world premiere of Cornelia, now at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, the soap doesn’t bubble as frothily as it could, due of to a nearly three-hour script — one that also needs more juice from Ethan McSweeny’s direction to be fully effective.
The racist, if you haven’t guessed, is none other than George C. Wallace (Robert Foxworth), the four-term Governor of Alabama and three-time Presidential candidate, and the vixen is Cornelia Folsom Snively (Melinda Page Hamilton), a divorcee and former beauty queen and water-skiing star, who returns home to Alabama determined to marry the recently widowed ex-governor. Cornelia is equally desperate to return to the Governor’s mansion, where she played as a child when her widowed uncle, Big Jim Folsom, ruled Alabama politics, while her larger-than-life mother, Ruby (Beth Grant), played hostess to the state.
When George decides to run for President, Cornelia turns out to be a big asset on the campaign trail — the classiest and politically savviest wife since Jackie Kennedy. Then the assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer ends the campaign and puts Wallace in a wheelchair.
While the first act flies by, the second act is cumbersome as it focuses squarely on the fallout of the shooting and becomes a series of domestic squabbles. Wallace (whom Foxworth embodies in the first act as all political sleaze and old-man creepiness) loses his drive and charm. Moreover, Cornelia’s desire to succeed George as Governor is derided for no good reason — especially since Wallace did force his first wife, Lurleen, to run for office when term limits at the time prevented him from seeking reelection.
John Lee Beatty has created a marvelous scenic design that runs the gamut from a chandelier-draped Governor’s mansion to a white-trash front porch, but the lumbering set pieces slow down the transitions from scene to scene. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are spot on, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Paul Peterson’s sound design, and Steven Cahill’s original music are all well executed.
In the first act, Hamilton does “flirt” and “determination” very well. Using her shapely legs, she soon has Foxworth’s Wallace tied up in knots. But she seems at a loss in the second act, having to play a variation on “The Bickersons” in scene after scene. Grant steals every minute she’s on stage as Ruby. Whether belittling her son-in-law, sneaking a drink, or wearing hot pants and cheap hats, she milks every laugh out of her outrageous yet heartfelt character. As George’s brother and campaign manager Gerald, T. Ryder Smith slickly essays the villain of the piece. As Gerald’s long-suffering wife Marie, Hollis McCarthy doesn’t have much to do except defend the spirit and legacy of Lurleen Wallace. But she and Hamilton have one of the show’s best scenes, a heart-to-heart girl talk about men and the attraction of love.
In the end, Cornelia seems like a good first draft of a play, but Olsen has much work left to do before sending the Wallaces out on the road. 05.22.2009
San Diego Theatre Scene, Charlene Baldridge – The dirty world of politics.
THE SHOW: world premiere production of Mark V. Olsen’s Cornelia, directed by Ethan McSweeny at the Old Globe.
THE STORY: takes the audience inside the manse and marriage of Alabama Governor George Wallace during his 1970-1977 marriage (they divorced in 1978) to former beauty queen Cornelia (nee Ellis) Snively, nearly 20 years his junior. The niece of unseated Gov. Jim Folsom, Cornelia is remembered for throwing herself across Wallace’s body (it made the cover of Life magazine) during a 1972 assassination attempt that left Wallace paralyzed from the legs down. He was serving his second term as governor and also stumping for the presidential primaries. Ostensibly Cornelia stood by her man, but she harbored political ambitions of her own, and even before it was discovered that she wiretapped the governor’s phones, his advisors were urging him to oust her from the marriage. Cornelia made a poor showing in a gubernatorial primary after the marriage ended. After that her history is sketchy.
Wallace, of course, was a segregationist and not a nice man at all (fancy that, and him a politician). Though it was discovered following the birth to their fourth child in 1961 that his former wife, Lurleen, had cancer, he withheld the news from her. He was about to assume the office of governor and he wanted Lurleen to run should he fail to get term limits repealed. Lurleen ran and won in 1966 and died in office in 1968.
That’s the back story/history, Here’s the plot of the play: Cornelia’s first marriage has failed and she goes home to visit her flamboyant, alcoholic mother, Ruby, who had acted as resident hostess when her brother, Big Jim Folsom, was governor. Cornelia, who remembers what it was like to live in the gubernatorial mansion, seduces the widowed Wallace, who is about to take office for his second term.
The seduction culminates in a torrid scene in the gubernatorial bedroom that had been Cornelia’s as a child. Gerald, Wallace’s campaign manager and brother, opposes the liaison and the marriage and sets about ruining Cornelia. Gerald’s wife, Marie, still devoted to the late Lurleen, at first abets him, but later appears be sympathetic to Cornelia. After Wallace is paralyzed, he spurns Cornelia’s sexual advances, and she wiretaps all the phones in the house, a fact eventually discovered by Gerald, who also discovers through the loose-lipped Ruby that Cornelia plans her own run for governor. Cornelia is at last cast out. End of play, with Cornelia, rather like Scarlett O’Hara lamenting the loss of Tara, the gubernatorial mansion looming in the background. Really a bodice-ripping bit of southern gothic, kids. Remember novelist Frank Yerby? This play is off the same lurid page.
THE PERFORMERS could not be better and almost convince the critic that there is indeed a cogent play here somewhere. Melinda Page Hamilton is intriguing as the self-deluded Cornelia, a steel magnolia of a southern belle who seems to know what she wants and sets about getting it. Robert Foxworth presents a sexy, mean and corrupt Wallace. His performance as this complicated man is so fascinating that the play might have been more properly titled George. As the ribald Ruby, Beth Grant well nigh steals the show. One understands how Cornelia grew to be a master manipulator. The equally manipulative (think Iago), Gerald is so well played by T. Ryder Smith that he also threatens to upset the play’s balance as Cornelia’s chief antagonist. The only non-stereotypical, non-ruthless character is bland by comparison—Marie, winningly played by Hollis McCarthy. Once won over, Marie is Cornelia’s only ally, and the play ends on a sad, unresolved note. Life is like that.
THE PRODUCTION is gorgeous, all one could expect of the Old Globe, with magical sets by John Lee Beatty (Spanish moss or a facsimile thereof hangs in the background); luscious. amusing and manly costumes by Tracy Christiansen; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound design by Paul Peterson; and evocative original music by Steven Cahill. Numerous scene changes were effected smoothly opening night May 21, and McSweeny does what he can with the over-ripe, undercooked script.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth a try
San Diego Theatre Scene blog, Jenni Prisk – My Two Cents. Cornelia opened at The Old Globe this week, penned by Mark Olsen of Big Love and directed by Ethan McSweeny. Based on the story of Governor George Wallace of Alabama and his marriage to divorced beauty queen Cornelia Folsom, the story is familiar to many. When we first meet the honey-toned, seductive Cornelia (Melinda Page Hamilton) it’s hard to envisage the scheming, power-hungry woman she will become as she pits her strengths against the formidable Wallace (Robert Foxworth). In the midst of the marital mayhem, both characters deal with Cornelia’s unstable mother, Ruby (Beth Grant) Wallace’s scheming brother Gerald (T. Ryder Smith) and his long-suffering wife Marie (Hollis McCarthy).
The characters ride the roller-coaster of love until it crashes when the power of politics plays its ugly hand. When George is confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, Cornelia seizes her opportunity to run for the Governor’s seat. The family ranks close around her, and even her mother is forced into the malevolence that is worked to bring her down. Played against beautiful settings designed by John Lee Beatty, with Christopher Akerlind’s dramatic lighting, this production (playing through June 21) will absorb you as it pits human emotions against the love of power.
North County Times, Anne Marie Welsh – Globe’s ‘Cornelia’ an ’80s-style soap opera. At the Old Globe, of all places, you can satisfy your craving for lurid, big-hair, Reagan-era melodrama with “Cornelia,” in which a pair of conniving climbers spar over sex and politics with the soap-operatic relish of TV’s Ewings and Carringtons feuding over sex and oil money.
But if it’s serious theater you’re after, the new play “Cornelia” by Mark V. Olsen ain’t it.
That the couple clawing and cavorting onstage are based on the race-baiting Alabama governor, George Wallace, and the beauty queen runner-up who became his second wife, somehow makes this empty spectacle of ambition, seduction and manipulation all the more disappointing, a nearly camp throwback to those ’80s television serials.
Director Ethan McSweeny, who’s been two for two at the Globe’s small Carter Stage with “Body of Water” and “In This Corner” in seasons past, scores again on the main stage, at least in the casting and pacing departments, with “Cornelia.”
But despite a remarkably nuanced, often potent performance by Robert Foxworth as George Wallace and a vigorous tour de force performance by Melinda Page Hamilton as the desperately driven, increasingly delusional Cornelia, the script skates along the surface of the days of these lives, and the writing lacks the resonance, menace and social significance that might make their story worth watching.
Given Foxworth’s history with Shakespeare’s villains and heroes (Iago, Macbeth, Claudius, Brutus among them), this fine actor brings a fullness, and now and again an ambiguity, to the role that the episodic, anecdotal writing doesn’t sustain.
Similarly, countless moments occur in which you imagine what Tennessee Williams might have done with the tawdry glamour of Cornelia, a pathetically insecure Southern belle who thinks she can parlay her charm as a water-ski queen at Florida’s Cypress Gardens into a political career.
Unfortunately, however, these Wallaces were real people, and the real-life attitudes their rise reflected —- and the political damage they inflicted on their state and the country —- might have inspired some deeper artistic contemplation. “Cornelia” is no documentary, nor was it meant to be; but it lacks the dramatic weight of its subject matter.
Olsen picks up The George Wallace Story in 1970. At that point, Wallace’s first wife, Lurleen, is dead and he is campaigning for his second term as governor. The divorced Cornelia, 20 years his junior and the niece of his former political rival, Big Jim Folsom, has set her sights on him. After a secret sex-fueled courtship, they wed.
The overlong play sweeps over the seven years of George and Cornelia’s fraught marriage, but the writer Olsen wisely introduces just three other characters: Cornelia’s crazy alcoholic mother, Ruby Folsom, played truly larger than life and always entertainingly by Beth Grant; George’s campaign-manager brother (and Cornelia’s nemesis) Gerald, played in an energetically servile yet serpentine way by T. Ryder Smith; and Gerald’s wife, a starchy, underwritten role handled well enough by Hollis McCarthy.
Cornelia narrates much of the tale, with John Lee Beatty’s realism-to-fantasy set filling in details of the backstory. Her drive to return to the Montgomery mansion where she grew up when her uncle Big Jim was governor brings on a floating house. Her mother’s run-down country shack slides on and off. A stage-filling electoral map shows George Wallace’s surprising (and scary) success in the 1968 and 1972 Presidential primaries.
One high point for actor Hamilton comes with her warm and intimate rendition of the Tammy Wynette classic, “Stand By Your Man.” George sits helplessly in the wings while his aspiring, mad-with-envy wife carries on, taking up his precious airtime. It’s the beginning of the violent end of their relationship and apparently, too, the start of Cornelia’s decline into a kind of madness.
(Any similarity to the great climactic onstage crack-up of the fragile country singer in Robert Altman’s fabulous 1975 film “Nashville” may not be coincidental.)
Still, despite the all-pro acting and design work and its sporadic entertainment value, in the end “Cornelia” is shallow and forgettable. The clanging, dissonant original music by Steven Cahill and the shrill sound by Paul Peterson only underscore the creaky melodrama of this ambitiously produced world premiere. 05.27.2009
Talkin Broadway, Bill Eadie – Robert Foxworth is giving one helluva performance in a world premiere at the Old Globe, through June 21. It’s too bad that the play in which he’s giving it is called Cornelia and not George.
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, Governor 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.
Show Mag, January Riddle – “The course of true love never did run smooth,” wrote Shakespeare. Although spoken by an unrequited lover in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard could have given that proclamation to a majority of love affairs throughout the ages. He could also have mentioned that fame alters love’s course considerably, placing deep pits, and hefty obstacles in the way.
Countless impediments litter the road traveled by Alabama’s most famous gubernatorial couple in “Cornelia,” Mark V. Olsen’s edgy, unsettling play about love, power, politics and their collisions and collusions.
Named for the wife of notorious governor George C. Wallace, this Old Globe Theatre production, keenly directed by Ethan McSweeny, is not a fairytale love story, although it does have some of the starry fable about it. Based on the real-life relationship between the notorious segregationist and the divorced beauty queen who became his second wife, “Cornelia” showcases her cabin-to-mansion rise to privilege and influence. Married just two weeks before Governor Wallace’s inauguration to a second term, the couple seems to be on the way to the White House, thanks to his national prominence and her clever resolve. With a quirky interpretation of seventies feminism, Olsen gives her the credit for manifesting that destiny using a combination of flirty manipulation and adroit determination.
Hitching her star to his power train delivers a much bumpier ride than either spouse expected. When a would-be assassin’s bullet claims Wallace’s physical and psychological mobility shortly before the beginning of his 1972 Presidential campaign, the train becomes a teeter-totter ridden by a pair of anxious adolescents playing power games. The downside, conveyed by the karma of hubris, fate, or a combination, proves their mutual and individual undoing.
They had family help in mapping both ups and downs. As Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most famous star-crossed lovers learned, undoing family ties doesn’t release the bindings, and love is not enough to conquer all. Cornelia’s brassy, potty-mouthed mom Ruby is at first a formidable campaigner for her son-in-law’s Presidential run. But when her alcoholism prompts too many slips from loose-lips, she becomes an embarrassment and an outcast.
Wallace’s sister-in-law Marie takes the opposite turn, changing from Cornelia’s foremost detractor to vigorous defender, once she witnesses George’s spousal abusive side. Not so, his brother Gerald, an Iago in banker’s clothing from propitious beginning to vexing end.
All this twisting and turning makes for an engaging, albeit tense, melodrama. Under the supervision of a less-committed director or in the hands of less-skilled and dedicated actors, this play could become a farce. Instead, it is uncomfortably like watching a real-life, modern-day family tragedy on video cam. There are real human emotions on display here, keeping this play from becoming trite or hyperbolic.
Melinda Page Hamilton portrays Cornelia precisely and courageously, seamlessly shape-shifting her myriad personas and leaving her in a pitiful puddle. Robert Foxworth is no less acute as George, moving from charming to frightening, from victor to spoiled without losing a trace of truth. Kudos to Beth Grant’s hilarious and grand characterization of the irrepressible Ruby, who keeps the story from spiraling too-smoothly.
Hollis McCarthy makes you want to just slap the annoyingly prim Marie, but she also elicits empathy during the discussion with Cornelia at the ironing board–a scene that used the playwright’s fine tuning because it easily could have slid into pathos. T. Ryder Smith as Gerald had perhaps the more difficult role, but he maintains the nuances of a borderline personality without caricaturing.
John Lee Beatty’s somewhat cartoonish scenic design works, despite being a bit too tacky; Tracy Christensen’s costumes are a little nutty at times, but mostly more fun than foolish, as were those early 70s styles.
Cornelia may be historically based, but that doesn’t make it predictable. From its randy one-liner beginnings to its wrenching end, it keeps you as off-balance as its namesake. After all, smooth courses are run only by imaginary lovers.
SanDiegoNews.com, Charlene Baldridge – Scarlett meets politics and sparks fly. Apparently hopes are high for Mark V. Olsen’s “Cornelia,” playing in its world premiere at the Old Globe through June 21. The five-person company features the considerable acting talents of Robert Foxworth, Melissa Page Hamilton and T. Ryder Smith — all known to Globe audiences — and debutants Beth Grant and Hollis McCarthy. Broadway director Ethan McSweeney stages the work, Olsen’s first full-length play.
Other assets include renowned Broadway scenic designer John Lee Beatty, whose designs suggest numerous locations in the Deep South. It looks like no expense was spared on Tracy Christensen’s numerous costumes and accessories for the women and the men’s well-tailored business suits. Christopher Akerlind and Paul Peterson — both topnotch designers — create lights and sound, respectively, and composer Steven Cahill creates his first Globe score to underlay the production, which spans 1970-1977, the years Alabama Gov. George Wallace was married to former beauty queen Cornelia (nee) Ellis.
In other words, it’s the kind of physical production we’ve come to expect of the Old Globe.
It was reported not long ago that former attorney Olsen — more recently executive producer, co-creator and writer of HBO’s “Big Love” — has been trying for years to find the best way to tell the story of Cornelia Wallace, wife of the controversial Alabama governor. In both real life and the play, Wallace was/is the king of wafflers and a deadly opponent of those who cross him, as Cornelia apparently did. On the day of the assassination attempt on Wallace’s life, Cornelia threw herself across his body, shielded it from further bullets with her own (it made the cover of Life), and famously “stood by her man,” who was paralyzed from the legs down thenceforward. History tells us she wiretapped his bedroom phone, made a gubernatorial run of her own, that various staff members colluded to get her ousted from mansion and marriage, and that she slunk off into the twilight. The play suggests that she was institutionalized. Cornelia died this year in Florida, where she’d moved to be closer to her two sons from a previous marriage.
There seems little doubt that Cornelia was delusional. Her favorite fictional character was Scarlett O’Hara, and her mother, Ruby Folsom (sister of former Gov. Jim Folsom, whom Wallace defeated) was an eccentric, outspoken woman. In the play, no doubt meticulously researched, she is a raging alcoholic as well. Did Cornelia really love George, or did she play the sex card and make nice though seven years of marriage merely to gain personal and political power? And what roles did the play’s Iago-like campaign manager, George’s brother Gerald Wallace, and Gerald’s wife, Marie, play in the drama?
Wow! Fodder for a brilliant play, indeed. Sadly, the real-life drama is not always compelling theater, at least not yet. George and Cornelia were exceptionally complicated people. Politics, as we know, is mean and nasty, and so was flip-flop four-time presidential candidate George, both personally and politically.
Aside from brilliant performances (and they are, all of them) and a beautiful physical production, this play needs more clarity and a dramatic arc that may not have existed in reality. There are many memorable scenes, the first of which is the initial mother-daughter scene between Cornelia and Ruby. The second is the brutal pre-nuptial consummation scene between the commanding Wallace and the kittenish Cornelia. The third is the girl talk between Marie and Cornelia over the ironing board. Another brilliant piece of acting occurs when Ruby takes over the paralyzed George’s office and nearly spills the beans about Cornelia’s intent to run for governor.
The playwright’s material, rife with marvelous, complicated characters and peppered with super scenes, fails to become a cohesive and consistently dramatic whole. But thanks for trying.