Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton
in Cornelia
(© Craig Schwartz)
Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton
in Cornelia
(© Craig Schwartz)
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.