By: David Sheward
December 19, 2022: Rebecca Nurse is a minor character in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s harrowing dramatization of the witch-hunt hysteria which gripped colonial America. But she is the center of Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s jagged new play set in contemporary times with a brief trip into the past. Well, not the Rebecca of Miller’s play, but an imagined descendent beset with just about every possible calamity associated with 21st century working-class society. The modern Becky (the brilliant Deirdre O’Connell) is addicted to opioids, has been fired from her job as a guide at the local museum of witchcraft, her granddaughter is just out of the hospital for depression, and she’s got a lousy love life. Drawing parallels to her ancestor, Becky becomes mixed up in magic spells to solve her various dilemmas and winds up in jail.
There’s a lot going on here but Ruhl manages to balance her busy plot full of themes of female oppression with wit and compassion. (One of the funnier running gags involves the Salem denizens arguing over whether the witches’ hanging tree is now occupied by the Dunkin Donuts or the CVS.) Thanks to a sensitive cast and imaginative, smooth direction from Rebecca Taichman what could have been an overloaded melodrama is a skewed-view comedy-tragedy. O’Connell, who won the 2022 Tony for a lip-synched bravura performance in Dana H., doesn’t condescend to Becky, but endows her with a feisty, if misguided energy. It makes perfect sense that she would make so many bad choices because O’Connell makes us believe they are the best possible option. She endows each moment with that much truth.
The cash-strapped Becky’s worst error is trusting a contemporary witch (played with pitch-perfect eccentricity and New England weirdness by Candy Buckley) who sells her charms and potions for hundreds of dollars. These machinations lead her into trysting with her married high-school sweetheart (sympathetic Bernard White), stymying her former boss (a delightfully pompous Tina Benko), unsuccessfully aiding her troubled granddaughter Gail (beautifully disturbed Alicia Crowder) and tries to and failing to foil Gail’s wiccan boyfriend (funny Julian Sanchez). The cast is rounded out by the reliable Thomas Jay Ryan doubling as a corrupt, but sympathetic cop and a sanctimonious judge.
When she wind up in the slammer for stealing a wax statue of the original Rebecca, Ruhl interposes scenes of the original 17th century witch trials with the transcripts of the record courts for dialogue. Becky also delivers the occasional lecture-like monologue on such topics as Arthur Miller’s sexual obsession with his future wife Marilyn Monroe inspiring the invented liaison between The Crucible’s hero, John Proctor and the play’s seductive teen Abigail, who in reality was only 11 years old. These footnote-like flights feel like the playwright talking to us rather than Becky, but they are informative and provide context.
Taichman delivers her usual fluid direction, employing Riccardo Hernandez’s suggestive set and Tal Yarden’s projections to make contemporary and colonial Salem frightening landscapes of the subconscious and the supernatural. Becky Nurse is not a perfect play, but Ruhl skillfully explores the roles of the mystical in everyday life and its heroine is endearingly human and will stick in your mind not unlike a magic talisman.
Dec. 4—31. Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Running time: two hours including intermission. lct.org.
Photography: Kyle Froman