The genesis for Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem was the author’s attending a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and discovering that the play is an uneasy blend of fact and fiction: Abigail Williams, the villain of Miller’s play was a prepubescent 11, not the 17-year-old femme fatale of Miller’s play, and John Proctor, depicted as the hero of the Salem Witch Trial was a 60-year-old tavern-keeper, not the hale and hearty 30-year-old farmer as he appears in the play. As a result, Proctor has come to be the moral hero of the story in most people’s minds, rather than the many women who were put to death.
In any event, Ruhl has not written a play set in 1692 or a sequel to The Crucible but a comedy about free-spirited Becky Nurse, a descendant of the accused witch Rebecca Nurse, a pious 71-year-old woman who had nine children and was hard of hearing, who wishes to set the record straight. Although a fascinating premise, the problem with play is that it throws in everything except the kitchen sink – but, in fact, it makes use of metal freestanding toilet. The play attempts to cover multiple themes and topics: revisionist history, the opioid crisis, the generation gap, teenage suicide, the Salem Witch Trial, unemployment, medical care, the supernatural, adultery, and office harassment. Conceived and written between 2016 – 2019, the play also tries to connect Trump Rallies in which the crowds shouted “Lock her up” and Trump’s repeated use of the words “witch hunt” and his attempt to appear the victim to the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trial in 1692. All of this is too much weight for any one play. Director Rebecca Taichman’s uneven production does not help, though much of that is the fault of the shift in tone in the writing.
Told from the point of view of Deirdre O’Connell’s grandmother Becky Nurse (who is onstage throughout the play), the first of the main plot points is that Becky is fired from her job as a guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft after 20 years for going off script and using foul language while giving tours to Catholic school groups. (She is certain that she knows more of the true story than the historians.) Her 15-year-old granddaughter Gail is released from a hospital for depression and has trouble readjusting herself to her old life or following Becky’s rules. Attempting to find another job, Becky visits a modern day witch who for a price she cannot afford advises her to attempt spells on her former boss Shelby, Stan, the teenage boy that Gail met at the hospital and likes, and the tavern keeper Bob, Becky’s former high school classmate who she has always loved and who married another. At first the witch’s advice seems to work, but eventually it lands her in jail – just like her ancestor in the days of old Salem.
In the second act, Becky hallucinates that she is one of the victims of the Salem Witch Trial in an imagined 1692 but this is dropped fairly quickly and the parallel is not maintained. The play seems to go in a different direction in each scene with the piling up of new plot points. While the tone is generally comic, the play isn’t very funny probably due to the author’s anger at the historical correlation. O’Connell is less over-the-top than she usually tends to be (other than in her restrained Tony Award winning performance in Lucas Hnath’s Dana H.) but she seems to want to break out at many moments. While she interacts with six other actors, the play gives the supporting characters little to do.
Thomas Jay Ryan, who previously appeared in Ruhl’s one Broadway play so far, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, enacts all four authority figures (The Security Guard, The Policeman, The Jailor and The Judge) the same way as if they were an extension of each other which may be entirely intentional as the play is so anti-authority. Tina Benko as the stiff, unyielding professor now director of the museum is rather one-note, also satirized as a poor authority figure. As Becky’s love interest Bob, the tavern keeper, Bernard White is sensitive in a role that suggests a modern John Proctor, here married to the off-stage Sharon. Candy Buckley is hilarious as the witch with an equally outrageous Boston accent. As the teenagers, Gail and Stan, Alicia Crowder and Julian Sanchez are rather stereotyped in clichéd roles of rebellious youth.
Riccardo Hernández’s setting is an all wood one, backed by wooden slats that could be either indoors or outdoors. While it works for all the scenes, it is rather low on atmosphere. The costuming needs of the play require contemporary sports clothes as well as Puritan dresses and suits from Emily Rebholz for the flashback scenes. The lighting by Barbara Samuels usually does not offer much mood or ambiance. The 2016-17 setting allows Palmer Hefferan’s sound design to include a news report of one of Trump’s rallies. Suzzy Roche is credited with the original music including the original modern folk song which seems out of place in this context.
Becky Nurse of Salem contains a fascinating idea that we can look at uncomfortable history through the prism of how it has affected its descendants. Unfortunately in her new play now at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, Sarah Ruhl simply has attempted to include too much and the play founders where it should be most concise and cogent. Director Rebecca Taichman who has worked well with her cast has not done the play any favors allowing it to shift tone from scene to scene. There may be a much more coherent play hiding in this material somewhere if some of the many themes were eliminated.
Becky Nurse of Salem (through December 31, 2022)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission