As if her own significant musical chops weren’t enough, Vega also works with pop songwriter Duncan Sheik of Spring Awakening fame to create a series of related songs for a production directed by Kay Matschullat. Sounds like a plan with some very creative and steady hands on deck and one that called to me.
I know that photo well. Most English majors do. And there is something in that pale, sad, wise, androgynous face that beckons to unveil the mysteries it contains.
Charming and companionable an evening as Carson McCullers Talks about Love is, those mysteries remain largely unmined. Perhaps that is the source of some of my frustration with the piece. We just don’t know much more about McCullers post show, than when we entered the theater. In a scant 90 minutes, we are told that she identifies as a lesbian, that she married and remarried fellow southerner Reeve McCullers with whom she would for a time share composer David Diamond as a lover, that she had many loves: Katherine Anne Porter, Marilyn Monroe, Hilda Marks, Anne Marie Clarac-Schwartzenbach, even Greta Garbo. That she had some famous friends like Tennesse Williams, Truman Capote and Gypsy Rose Lee, to name but a few. What a fascinating life.
Little in the narrative, drawn from McCullers’ own writing, gives any indication of what this means, or why she is necessarily drawn to the people with whom she became infatuated. With the exception of a funny and self deprecating story of how she stalked Katherine Anne Porter by sleeping outside her door at an artists’ colony, we don’t know much about which of these affections were reciprocated, and in what form.
We don’t know what gave her the strength to leave her hometown in Georgia at the age of 17 to travel to New York City. And how she made the contacts to be published at the astounding age of 19 at a time when work by women writers was not usually encouraged. We don’t know these things unless we are that English major or devotee and that is not fair to a general theater goer.
McCullers certainly provides rich fodder. Gore Vidal described her work as ” . . . one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.” The author of such acclaimed novels as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding and Reflections in a Golden Eye as well as the outstanding short story collection, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, she attracted equal attention for her complicated personal life.
It’s hard to know what to call Carson McCullers Talks about Love. Is it a cabaret? A live concept album? Although Vega tells stories and the performance takes place in a theater, it doesn’t resemble a play. There is no traditional sense of conflict that might drive a drama. Refreshingly, as depicted by Vega, she does not seem conflicted by much. Not by her lesbianism, nor the unconventionality of her marriage or the pursuit or demands of fame at an early age. Amusingly, one the biggest sources of conflict seems to be her competition with sister Southern writer Harper Lee with whom she was often unfairly compared. So the omission of any real depiction of pain or conflict feels glaring, given that McCullers contracted rheumatic fever at the age of fifteen and suffered strokes as a young woman. Or that by the age of 31, her left side was paralyzed and that she later had breast cancer. McCullers died at 50. Along the way, she struggled with alcoholism and depression and narrowly escaped a double suicide urged on by her husband in which he was successful.
I yearned to hear and understand more, especially from someone Tennessee Williams described as understanding “the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love.” The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter remain some of my most impressionable reads. Decades later, I am still haunted by this work. And McCullers has legions of new fans as a consequence of Oprah Winfrey selecting The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for her book club in 2004.
Instead, the evening feels like a surface homage to a witty companion who spoke ironically about her own life, punctuated by songs about the same. The musicianship by pianist Joe Iconis and Andy Stark is first rate and also rounds out the show cleverly. The charismatic Iconis sometimes supplies one liners from people in McCullers’ life and Stark’s electric guitar sometimes becomes the voice of Reeve McCullers. Vega is not much of an actress. She is surprisingly stiff on stage for someone who has spent a lot of time on them and all of her commentary is delivered at the same pitch. I wondered what a skilled actress might bring to the material, what nuances might be conveyed.
But singing is a different story. And although I did not leave the theater humming a song, I find myself returning to riffs from different pieces, especially as delivered by Vega’s silky voice. I hope this piece has a future life and that Vega will record some of the songs. She and Sheik make a good team.
Beyond that, I am significantly reminded once again, how few lesbian lives we see depicted in the theater and how we want and need to see more. Perhaps that, too, is the source of some of my disappointment with Carson McCullers Talks about Love. Because as the great McCullers herself wrote, “All we can do is go around telling the truth.” So let’s do that, shall we? Even as we struggle with the inevitable and challenging task of finding the right dramatic forms.
Joan Lipkin is the Artistic Director of That Uppity Theatre Company. Her plays are included in Best American Short Plays, Amazon All Stars: 13 Lesbian Plays, and Mythic Women/Real Women among other publications
Carson McCullers Talks about Love plays at the Rattlestick Theater through June 5.
BY: JOAN LIPKIN