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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.

Cornelia by Mark Victor Olsen
The Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Ethan McSweeny; cast: Melinda Page Hamilton, Robert Foxworth, Beth Grant, T. Ryder Smith, Hollis McCarthy; scenic design, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Tracy Christensen; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through June 21: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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