Review: ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ Rides a Witch Revival Wave

Sarah Ruhl's new play draws parallels between the infamous 17th century witch trials and our own times.

Deirdre O’Connell and Candy Buckley in ‘Becky Nurse of Salem.’ Credit: Kyle Froman Kyle Froman

 

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Becky Nurse of Salem | 2hrs. One intermission. | Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater | 150 W 65th St | (212) 501-3100

Witches, it seems, are experiencing something of a renaissance. 2022 marks the 330th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials and various cultural pacesetters have seized on the opportunity to remind us of the long arc of misogyny. Publishers have conjured up books with titles like The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World and In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial that serve as liner notes for the peal of witchcraft ringing unappeasably through the ages. Elsewhere, institutions like the New York Historical Society, which has an exhibit on “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” take a Wunderkammer approach to edification. The show, which is imported from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., is both a cache of documents contextualizing the controversial trials and a provocation to consider the manifold, affirmative meanings of the word “witch.” Still others, like the Atlantic Theater and Lincoln Center Theater, have cooked up plays that are a brew of the occult and problems sexual, medical, and emotional.

As you walk into the Society’s exhibit, the subdued, crepuscular lighting and sound of fire crackling set the proper mood for an owl-of-Minerva-flies-at-night retrospective. The first part displays historical documents (e.g. petitions and letters testifying to the innocence of the unlucky accused) and personal effects belonging to various families accused of witchcraft in the Puritan community. The second half showcases costumes and photographs by descendants of some of the Salem accused, serving as a subtle rejoinder to the mass hysteria that led to the deaths of 25 innocent people in 1692-3. In addition to the eye-catching dresses culled from Alexander McQueen’s 2007 collection (his ancestor Elizabeth How was one of the women hanged for allegedly being a witch and was the inspiration for the collection), there are portraits of a diverse group of women and genderfluid and trans individuals who all identify as witches in contemporary America, taken by Frances F. Denny, a descendant of a woman accused of witchcraft and of a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. 

The exhibition was much on my mind when I went to see Becky Nurse of Salem, a new serio-comic play by Sarah Ruhl, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, about the modern-day misadventures of the descendant and namesake of one of the accused witches. Museum exhibits often carry a spinach whiff of didacticism—indeed it is their very birthright—but we should expect more of plays. With some productions, though, the veneer of fictionality is irretrievably smudged by the fingerprints of a playwright too eager to impart a lesson: dread word. Do yourself a favor and skip the note from Ruhl in the colorful program—or at least save it for after the performance, when a little sound from the ear trumpet of authorial intent has less opportunity to drown out the performances, led by the commanding Deirdre O’Connell, making the most of a thin role.

While Becky Nurse of Salem has a tighter narrative arc than some of Ruhl’s other plays, under the buckshot direction of Rebecca Taichman, the story is broken up into chunks that cumulatively give the impression of a series of pointillist character sketches. Exhibit 1 is a wax doll that would not look out of place in the Historical Society exhibit. Garbed in a dishwater-colored frock and glaring at us from under caterpillar brows is a life-sized figure of Rebecca Nurse, the eldest woman to be put to death during the Salem Witch Trials. Becky Nurse (Deirdre O’Connell, exuding caustic charm) is her descendant, and works at the fictional Salem Museum of Witchcraft, where, when the play opens, she’s giving a tour to a passel of school children (that’s us). She is an unabashed pot-stirrer, the kind of person who, when given a script, finds ways to creatively slalom around it. Her literal script is sprinkled with Snapple cap facts that ratchet from the benign (“Lucille Ball’s related to [Rebecca Nurse], Mitt Romney too”; “Tituba was the first woman to confess to witchcraft”) to the more mature. All carry a slipped-by-the-censors charge. Becky’s boss Shelby (Tina Benko), on the other hand, is the kind of carping bureaucrat who adds hours to each workday with each utterance. A poster child for “lean in” feminism, she pays grating lip service to lifting up other women (“That’s what this museum should be about, teaching women not to accuse each other, and not to be divided by the patriarchy”), but hardly bats an eye when she fires Becky for not following the official script as if it were scripture. 

Out of a job and with a granddaughter to support, Becky goes to a Marriott hotel to ask about an overnight shift, only to discover it’s been filled. Stan (Julian Sanchez), the heavily tattooed, Wiccan teen who has secured the spot, airily suggests that she go see a witch for help with job prospects. “I don’t see witches,” claims Becky. “My ancestor was killed because of all this witch stuff.” And yet: the next scene sees her at a Witch’s Emporium, suggested, on Riccardo Hernández’s minimal set, with a bar cart decked with sachets of crystals and herbs, ointments, and jars of rainbow orbs. The vibe is very Anthropologie by Beckett. Within minutes of their first meeting, the witch (Candy Buckley, with a mane of silver locks and an oleaginous accent) is upselling Becky on love potions—so she can win back her (married) high school beau Bob (Bernard White)—and a spell to reverse her rotten luck, “caused by a curse, way back.” All Becky has to do is fork over $400, which she has to borrow: debt on the installment plan.

We learn, in another scene with her granddaughter Gail (Alicia Crowder) that Becky lost her daughter to an opioid addiction and that Becky herself has developed a dependence on pain pills. After her pills are confiscated by a police officer (Thomas Jay Ryan), who has arrested her for trespassing on her former place of employment and making off with the wax figure of Rebecca Nurse, Becky, in withdrawal, hallucinates a scene from 1692. Characters dressed in the raiment of pilgrims swarm around her and chant “Lock her up! Lock her up! Kill the Witch! Lock her up!” Ruhl has said that she started working on the play after the election of Trump, and the parallels between 1692 and 2016, when the play is mostly set, are none too subtly drawn. Accusations of being a witch persist as vectors of misogyny, but the dog whistle has become a dog wail. And a wail is a wail is a wail. 

What might the 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse, who was hard of hearing (which, the Peabody Essex Museum has speculated, “may have prevented her from defending herself fully in court”), have made of this? She was one of three sisters of the Towne family of Salem Village charged with witchcraft in 1692. (She is also one of the condemned individuals in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible.”) “The Salem Witch Trials” exhibit, which displays a window owned by her family, notes that “the Towne sisters and their families had been embroiled for years in land disputes with their neighbors, the prominent Putnams, who became some of their most vocal accusers.” Interestingly, what the exhibit fails to note, but which the Peabody Essex did, was that Rebecca was initially acquitted before judges presiding over her trial asked the jury “to reconsider,” prompting her to be hanged. A different playwright might have milked this dialectical detail for all its inherent drama, but oddly, Ruhl has glossed over this point in favor of a more streamlined story. 

Part of what makes Becky Nurse of Salem seem predictable and deflationary at times can be chalked up to the fact that it is one of at least two plays to have taken a bite out of the Salem apple this year. As its title suggests, Kimberly Belflower’s “John Proctor Is the Villain,” which had its world premiere this summer at Washington, D.C.’s intimate Studio Theatre, has some thematic overlaps with Ruhl’s play, but is the more original of the two. (It should transfer to New York and be seen by a larger audience.) Directed by Marti Lyons, that play, when I saw it, successfully balanced a tree-shaking critique of “The Crucible” with a crow-black comedy about a group of high school students whose lives have been ignited by the #MeToo movement. The wonder of that work was in observing a team of first-rate actors work together to slowly unclench that fist of a phrase: “John Proctor Is the Villain.” The sturm und drang of being a high schooler in rural Georgia—specifically, of being a female student learning about John Proctor’s “affair” with his teenage maid, Abigail Williams, just as the wave of #MeToo accusations crests—is catalyzed into something much more expansive, even liberatory. For though it’s named for the protagonist of Miller’s play, the play both is and isn’t focalized on the Salem Trials. The stridency of the title—ironic for a play that spends so much time unpacking Miller’s allegory of McCarthyism—dissolves in a moving coda that sticks with me still. A paean to female agency and desire, to the gibbous moon of youth. 

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Review: ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ Rides a Witch Revival Wave