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Theatre Review (San Diego): Cornelia by Mark Victor Olsen at The Old Globe Theatre

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Take some Little Foxes and add a cup of The Best Man, stir in All The King’s Men, a smidgen of Evita, and a dash of salt and pepper and you might come up with the new play Cornelia by Mark Olsen, one of the writers of Big Love, currently getting its world premiere at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. It’s a humdinger of a soapy story that uses the relationship between George Wallace of Alabama and his beauty-queen wife Cornelia as a starting point to examine the political and personal life of the man who nearly was elected President and his devoted and ambitious wife Cornelia.

Cornelia is a recently divorced beauty queen with Southern nobility in her blood. Her father was Big Jim Folsom, the famous governor of Alabama, who nurtured George Wallace’s career only to have Wallace steal away the governorship from Folsom. Cornelia wheedles her way into Wallace’s heart, and a Southern dynasty is cemented. It is no wonder that playwright Olsen would have been attracted to this Southern Gothic epic; like his television show Big Love, it features a unique American culture struggling against an outside society that disapproves of its beliefs, and a family waging an internal war for control and dominance. What we get is a pretty terrific yarn.

The cast of Cornelia is truly inspired and gifted. Melinda Page Hamilton plays the title character with grace, and a steely determination to make her way in a very male-dominated society. The marvelous Robert Foxworth is the abusive, hard-edged, yet strangely sympathetic George Wallace. His mother-in-law, played by the great Beth Grant, describes Wallace as “a shit.”

After meeting with an assassin’s bullet, Wallace becomes introverted, cold, needy, and desperate, and treats his wife very badly by being unfaithful while refusing her advances.  He beats her down and finally throws her out and divorces her when he discovers that she has tapped his phone, for what he thinks are political reasons; she says she did it to find out if he still loved her. The end is tragic for both of these twisted personalities, but it is a credit to the actors and director Ethan McSweeney that one feels sorry for the pain each character endures.

Besides Beth Grant, who is fantastic as the hard-living widow of Big Jim Folsom and Cornelia’s mom, the cast includes T. Ryder Smith as Wallace’s slimy brother Gerald and Hollis McCarthy as Marie, Gerald’s wife and defender of the memory of George’s first wife Lurleen. John Lee Beatty's sets range from the chandelier-draped Governor’s mansion to a trashy porch in the country. The costumes by Tracy Christiansen and lights by Chris Akerlind help capture the period as well as the mood. Paul Peterson provides the appropriate sound design.

While the play is fascinating, it is really the performances that make Cornelia worth remembering. It plays at the The Old Globe until June 21.

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