More than three years ago, plans were afoot to bring Mark Victor Olsen's play, Cornelia, about the life of governor George Wallace's second wife, to Broadway. The show has remained in limbo, seemingly hampered by producers' inability to find a suitable, star-worthy lead actress who'd commit to the project. As Olsen's agent at the Tantleff Office, John Santoianni, told Playbill On-Line at the time, any theatrical plans for the play are "primarily contingent on finding an actress for the starring role. Until then, it's in some limbo."
Early on, Elizabeth Ashley had been mentioned for the role of Ruby, Cornelia Wallace's mother. As late as September 2000, Ashley was still expressing interest in the role and now, at least for a night and in a staged reading, she'll get a crack at it. Cornelia will be staged as part of George Street Playhouse's "Naked Plays" series, Nov. 5 in New Brunswick, NJ. George Street artistic director, Ethan McSweeny, will direct, with Ashley playing the mom and Side Man Tony-winner Frank Wood also in the reading, as are Jody Markell and Nance Williamson.
Olsen's play is based on George Wallace's relationship with his second wife during his unsuccessful presidential bid.
George Wallace passed away in 1998. One of America's most colorful, if infamous governors, he is remembered for instigating the historic confrontation over school desegregation in which the National Guard was called in by the White House to keep the doors of the University of Alabama open for black students. Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt during the early '70s while running for president, and was bound to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.
Actress Ashley received a 1962 Tony Award for her performance with Art Carney in Take Her, She's Mine. Her other Broadway credits include The Highest Tree, Barefoot in the Park, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Agnes of God. Her recent turn in The Glass Menagerie at Hartford Stage was Broadway bound until problems world-wide producing rights got in the way. Back in September 2000, agent Santoianni noted that Barry and Fran Weissler still hold the theatrical producing rights to Cornelia, rights previously held by the Dodgers. At the same time, film rights are held by Barwood Films, Barbra Streisand's production company at the Columbia Studios. At that time, Olson was busy working on an HBO series about the diaries of Mary Chestnut, the wife of a Confederate politician.
In previous months, director Christopher Ashley was attached to the project, which was originally to be staged by Jerry Zaks. Ashley's early assignments included Buzzsaw Berkeley and Bella, Belle of Byelorussia, while more recent gigs have been the cartoony biography of Gilda Radner, Bunny Bunny, and the cartoon-based Encores! revival of Li'l Abner His breakthrough was Jeffrey by playwright Paul Rudnick.
Director McSweeny, who just finished staging Ctrl-Alt-Del in San Jose and travels to MN's Guthrie Theatre this winter to stage Thief River, told Playbill On-Line (Nov. 1) that Cornelia was "a great way to start off the reading series with a bang. Liz [Ashley] is a personal friend, and the role was practically written for her." Asked if the George Street staging would have future repercussions, McSweeny said, "well, we don't retain any proprietary interest in the play, but we do do readings of stuff we'd think about putting on the mainstage."
Case in point: the next reading for George Street's "Naked Plays" series, in which plays are done sans costumes, sets and props, will be Dec. 17: Ain Gordon's Public Ghosts — Private Stories, based on 180 years of ethnic and immigrant true-life stories in New Brunswick. This will be the last public reading of the piece before it goes up in full production in May. Further plays will be read Jan. 14, Feb. 25, April 1 and May 13, 2002.
A George Street Playhouse spokesperson told Playbill On-Line the hope is for the "Naked Plays" series to "help our audiences get an eye on how a show goes up from its embryonic stages. It's the bare bones of theatre itself."
-- By David Lefkowitz