Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: MAY 29, 2009
Wow, what a pair! Fiery ambition pumped them up. Hubris and power-mongering brought them down. You could call them the modern-day Macbeths. Mr. and Mrs. George Wallace. That would be the second Mrs. Wallace. The Al abama governor’s first wife died of cancer, but not before he kept the diagnosis from her, and forced her to run as his surrogate when he was termed out. He went on to serve four terms as Governor and to run four times for President.
By all accounts, certainly Cornelia’s, he was a coarse womanizer, an opportunist without principles, who went wherever the votes were, whether that meant moderate Democrats, where he began, or racist segregationists, which is how he wound up.
And Cornelia Wallace – well, she was a piece of work in her own right. A divorced former beauty queen, professional water skier, synchronized swimmer, pace-car driver, country singer and niece of Big Jim Folsom, a progressive, two-term governor bumped out by his protégé, Wallace. She just wanted back into the Governor’s mansion. Wallace, twenty years her senior, wanted legitimacy for his hardscrabble, increasingly extremist machine. And according to the play, they each wanted a little sexual satisfaction, too. Well, they got everything they asked for – and then some! — until it all came crashing down. The bullet of a would-be assassin put Wallace in a wheelchair and ended his 1972 Presidential bid. Cornelia’s paranoia and hunger for power ultimately put her out on the street. But in their heyday, they were something.
Mark Olsen, co-creator of the hit HBO series, “Big Love,” tells a different story of Big Love in “Cornelia” – and it’s a corker. This world premiere is narrated by our charmingly unscrupulous heroine, and features her delightfully, frightfully outspoken, alcoholic mother, Ruby, who steals every scene she’s in. There are two other characters in the play: Wallace’s ruthless, devious brother, and his mousy wife, who first disdains Cornelia, and then becomes her only supporter.
The performances at the Old Globe are outstanding, under the expert direction of Ethan McSweeny . Melinda Page Hamilton and Robert Foxworth are superb, highly convincing and unnerving as the scandalous Wallaces ; their seduction scene alone is worth the price of admission. A little judicious editing of the play is in order – there may even be one character too many — but this is the real-life stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. And the sad ending is made even more poignant by Cornelia’s death, at age 69, just five months ago. We’re not talking ancient history here. Many audience members will recall the incendiary governor and his glamorous wife. But you probably won’t know all the sordid details, and they do make for a juicy and irresistible drama.
“Cornelia” runs through June 21 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park .
©2009 PAT LAUNER