Joe Iconis and Suzanne Vega in
Carson McCullers Talks About Love
(© Sandra Coudert)
Joe Iconis and Suzanne Vega in
Carson McCullers Talks About Love
(© Sandra Coudert)
Suzanne Vega is a brilliant songwriter, and the tunes that she and fellow composer Duncan Sheik have created for Carson McCullers Talks About Love, now premeiring at Rattlestick Theatre, are beautifully rendered and marvelously performed. Unfortunately, Vega is less adept as an actress, which unbalances the dynamic of this bio-musical about the famous writer.

Vega begins the piece as herself, reminiscing about the first time she saw a photograph of Carson McCullers, and thinking, "I could be this woman." As an instrumental passage of the bluesy first song in the show plays, she removes her bright red lipstick, dons a frumpy wig, changes jackets, and takes on the persona of Carson McCullers.

And yet, it's not a very successful impersonation. In appearance, there is a passable likeness, and the soft Southern accent is appropriate. However, Vega seems ill at ease, and her delivery of her lines has a forced, stilted quality when it cries out for a more conversational manner -- particularly as so much of the play (written by Vega) is loaded with biographical exposition.

While the majority of McCullers' speeches are monologues, she does engage in short snippets of dialogue with Joe Iconis, her onstage accompanist, who voices several of the people in McCullers' life. The show's other onstage musician, Andy Stack, also occasionally contributes to the narrative flow, usually using some guitar riffs as the "voice" of Reeves McCullers, her alcoholic husband.

As Carson, Vega talks about the author's many love affairs with both men and women. She also sprinkles in references to several of McCullers' most famous works such as Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Many of these stories lead directly into the songs, and once Vega begins to sing, a remarkable transformation occurs as the discomfort the performer evidences in the spoken segments disappears and there is a nuanced interpretation that is riveting.

A song dedicated to Annemarie Clarac Schwartzenbach, who was perhaps one of the most significant female loves in Carson McCullers' life, is suffused with an aching passion. "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" based on McCullers' short story of the same name, has a sense of wonder and discovery, as this story song's central character talks of how love should begin.

However, it's "Miss Amelia's Song" that proves to be the most successful of the evening, and the craftsmanship of this tune is on par with some of the Grammy Award-winning artist's greatest hits like "Tom's Diner" and "Luka." Based upon the characters of McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café, it succinctly captures the mood and central conflict within that novella, while also serving as a sad commentary on the romantic triangle in McCullers' own life, involving herself, Reeves and their friend, composer David Diamond, who was first her lover and then his.

For Suzanne Vega's many fans, songs like this are reason enough to attend the show. However, the performer's limitations as an actress make the evening only modestly successful.