Robert Foxworth is George Wallace and

"Cornelia" can't decide what play that is or what to make of the title character.

Novice legit scribe Mark Victor Olsen (TV’s “Big Love”) is on to something in envisioning a potent play in the lives and careers of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace and his trophy second wife. But “Cornelia,” an Old Globe world premiere, can’t seem to decide what play that is: what to make of the title character, or what her story means. Strong acting and narrative surprise provide plenty of entertainment, especially for those willing to ride along on lurid incident and ignore character inconsistency.

The specter of the grimacing troll barring the state university’s doors to black students was long established when Wallace (Robert Foxworth) began listing center with an eye toward the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. Marriage to the much younger beauty queen (Melinda Page Hamilton) — part of the progressive Folsom family whose machine Wallace had ousted — was considered a genius stroke, with no less a pundit than Merv Griffin pronouncing her the candidate’s “secret weapon.”

Olsen reminds us how close Wallace came, his nationwide primary victories ending only with the paralyzing bullet fired by psychotic diarist Arthur Bremer. But one must look elsewhere for an explanation of Wallace’s success. Foxworth’s game efforts to endow the strutting bantam rooster with rascally charm are undone by play’s one-dimensional view of the guv’nor as a patently racist bully and wife-beating hypocrite.

That interp, however valid, makes a puzzle of Wallace’s appeal to Cornelia, whose lifelong devotion seems positively delusional. We see little of Mr. and Mrs. in full cooperation mode (that alone could have made for a sizzling play); no sooner are they married than an all-out brawl over the suit he’ll wear to a rally casts the die for sheer misery thereafter.

Yet even then, Olsen never clarifies whether Cornelia is a truly besotted wife, thoughtful progressive politician or scheming Lady Macbeth eager to follow predecessor Lurleen into the governor’s chair. Hints of each keep appearing, but Olsen seems unaware that contradictory signals don’t in and of themselves constitute rich ambiguity. Often as not they imply confusion, the result of rewrites over time (the play was reportedly 20 years in the making and sounds it).

The first lady’s haughty “I have always aspired to the loftiest heights” evokes Blanche DuBois’ reliance on strangers’ kindness, one of many tropes hoping to capture Williams-esque stature. She compares herself to Scarlett O’Hara, too, but like her periodic direct audience address, the choice impresses as lazy shorthand, employed to evoke meaning when the real structural labors have gone undone.

Saddled with a character whose motives and arc don’t add up, the luminous Hamilton elects to vote the straight Sincerity ticket; it deepens our confusion, but her gifts of steamy sexuality and studied coquetry keep us happily captivated anyway. She and Foxworth generate down-home heat in their courtship, lemonade substituting for the two smoked cigarettes in “Now, Voyager.”

Later, we clearly perceive Cornelia’s ambitions growing in an ironing-board chat with sister-in-law Marie (Hollis McCarthy, precise and fine), who defiantly testifies for poor Lurleen in the face of the widower’s indifference. Sequence’s shape sharply contrasts with the self-conscious lumpiness elsewhere.

Ethan McSweeny’s swiftly gliding, if overlong production feels underpopulated; the bracing sense of political creatures left alone to connive is absent when we’ve only seen them alone to begin with. Wallace must have had a savvier entourage than one rube relative (T. Ryder Smith, a shouting exposition provider), and Cornelia can’t have obtained sustenance solely from her (unseen) beautician and blowsy mother Ruby (Beth Grant, who’d help if she let ‘er rip earlier).

Maybe a feature or telepic would engage more fully with the era’s teeming politics and sharpen the take on larger-than-life personalities. In the meantime, McSweeny’s designers take full advantage of stagecraft, Tracy Christensen’s witty costumes period-correct down to the last hem.

Christopher Akerlind lights John Lee Beatty’s governor’s mansion as if it hovered tantalizingly in Cornelia’s fevered imagination, a single image revealing her self-conception more than the thousands of words with which Olsen doggedly spells it out.

Cornelia

Old Globe; 603 seats; $76 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by Mark Victor Olsen. Directed by Ethan McSweeny.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Tracy Christensen; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Paul Peterson; original music, Steven Cahill; stage manager, Leila Knox. Opened May 21, 2009. Reviewed May 23. Runs through June 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cornelia - Melinda Page Hamilton George - Robert Foxworth Ruby - Beth Grant Gerald - T. Ryder Smith Marie - Hollis McCarthy

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