Suzanne Vega Brings Carson McCullers Passion Project to Stage

by Julie Bonnin on February 28, 2018 in Living Texas, Houston, Music, Theatre,
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“It’s absorbing in the way of a really good book, especially if that book happened to be backed by a live, on-stage band.”

It’s not an easy task to bring to life a singular writer who is more awkward introvert than larger-than life-personality. Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers speaks in a soft-spoken Southern cadence, and her outsider persona is wrapped in the baggy pants and clunky shoes of the 1940s.

The singer-songwriter inhabits the author profiled in the Alley Theater production of “Lover, Beloved,” (playing through March 11) in a quietly mesmerizing way, breaking up a biographical monologue with ethereal musical performances. It’s absorbing in the way of a really good book, especially if that book happened to be backed by a live, on-stage band. You’ll find yourself sinking into your seat as Vega slowly, but surely, builds a portrayal of a novelist who was ahead of her time, but, sadly, caught up in a series of troubled and/or unrealized relationships.

Suzanne Vega has explained that she had always seen something of herself in photos of the novelist as a young girl, and chose to portray McCullers for a college theater class assignment. She began working on a play about McCullers, the author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and “Member of the Wedding,” at that time, she told The New York Times.

Suzanne Vega in the World Premiere of Lover, Beloved: An Evening with Carson McCullers. The play is based on the works of Carson McCullers, written and performed by Suzanne Vega with songs co-authored by Duncan Sheik. Photo by Lynn Lane

About a decade ago, Vega and co-composer Duncan Sheik of “Spring Awakening,” produced their first play about the author. Vega released an album of related musical material in 2016.

She initially presents McCullers as the young author, just after she found fame with her first novel (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), in trademark argyle socks and men’s trousers, with a cigarette in her hand. During this first half of the play, McCullers details her early life, unfortunately dominated by illness. As life progressed we learn that she and her handsome husband tended to end up with the same extra-marital partners, whether male or female. Yet, Vega captures some of the sweetness of their early relationship, as well as the evolution of McCullers “lover, beloved” theories alluded to in the title of the play.

Her views about sexuality, civil rights and other issues were ahead of her time, but McCullers struggled with chronic illness, in relationships and in love. Her marriage was plagued by alcoholism, and ended with the suicide of her longtime partner. And, yet, she never lost a love of humanity, or her wry sense of humor, both of which helped her persevere. The play, amazingly, doesn’t sink under the weight of her struggles.

As an invalid in a wheelchair at the end of her life in 1967, Vega presents McCullers as the dogged survivor she was. She may never have reached the peak of her earlier works again, but tended to memoirs (unfinished) and continued to socialize with literati and Hollywood luminaries, despite her serious physical limitations.

Suzanne Vega’s passion project brings her alive on the stage and, inevitably, will introduce new fans to her work.

Cover photo by Lynn Lane