In Carson McCullers Talks About Love, now playing at the Rattlestick Theater, eighties music star Suzanne Vega not only talks and sings about how much she loves Carson McCullers but also plays her with sensitivity and warmth. In what is essentially a one-woman, written by Vega, she delivers an affectionate musical biography, an extended love song to the iconoclastic author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of Sad Café and The Member of the Wedding.
Vega’s fascination with McCullers began early when she saw her photo on a biography at her local library as a child. The plays opens with this memory, but Vega soon transforms herself into Carson McCullers with the addition of a wig and a patchy Southern accent and stays in character until the final song. Her interest in McCullers, one might say obsession, has remained strong through the years; her undergraduate thesis at Barnard College was a play with songs about McCullers.
But this is not that play. Vega has apparently gone back to the source and based most of the script and lyrics on McCullers’ own words. The composer Duncan Sheik,whose credits include Spring Awakening, joined her to write the 14 or so songs that punctuate the play. Joe Iconis, the flawless pianist, explained before the start that songs were being added even at this late stage, which was why Vega sometimes held notes to sing from.
Despite being slightly unpolished and perhaps even unfinished,the play has an authentic feel even if sometimes the words are a little clunky, especially when set to music. One early song has the unfortunate rhyme of “Where I’m from,/There’s poverty,/Racial inequality.”
But this is the exception, for Vega’s sincerity shines through, and the facts of Carson McCullers’ life – lesbian lovers when such love could not speak its name, an alcoholic husband whom she married twice before he committed suicide, a series of debilitating strokes that left her paralyzed on the left side of her body from her mid 30s, and her own fondness for drink – provide ample dramatic material.
Vega’s passion for McCullers is clearly shared by director Kay Matschullat who worked with Vega to make this a stage piece. The Carson portrayed here is an eccentric, romantic, hilarious original who lived in a whirl of famous writers and a haze of alcohol.
She declares at least four times during the play that she has “met the love of my life,” and yet one feels she never conquered the deep sense of loneliness or otherness found in much of her writing. This feeling is reinforced by the songs, most of which are jazzy ballads, which Vega stands to sing in her velvety voice at a large retro microphone. There are moments of humor as well, such as the song about Harper Lee, a lyrical portrait of literary jealousy.
Much of the crowd on a recent night were clearly stalwart Vega fans eager to see how their heroine would reinvent herself as a theatrical performer. Clearly, acting is something that does not yet come naturally to Vega, but the play itself sustains most of the creaky moves and hesitant pacing. She has said that this may the first series of performances about prominent women.
One has to wonder if Vega can love anyone else as much as she clearly loves Carson McCullers. But perhaps with a less adored subject she will be able to work on some smoother transitions between songs and spoken word. For while she sings with compelling power, this play will be most appreciated by those who already love Suzanne Vega and Carson McCullers.