2016 Salem, Massachusetts. Becky Nurse (Dierdre O’Connell), whose ancestors were burned as witches, chafes at prescribed narrative she’s instructed to deliver as a long time guide at the city’s museum of witchcraft. The blowsy, mouthy, middle-aged woman knows, she’s sure, a more accurate version of history. When she’s chastised by staid museum director Shelby (Tina Benko) for using unsavory language, Becky swears at her boss and is summarily fired. Furious, she tries to run off with the wax figure of her forebear. (A wonderful prop and conceit.) Is she unlucky, self-defeating or cursed?
Becky has no marketable skills. How will she continue to support herself and institutionalized granddaughter Gail? (Alicia Crowder). She commiserates with old friend, bar owner Bob (Bernard White), whom she’s loved since prom. He affectionately observes she has a habit of shooting herself in the foot. The only other work in town for which she’s qualified – overnight front desk at the Marriott- is, she finds, already filled by a young, tattooed Goth named Stan (Julian Sanchez). He genially offers Becky the business card of a witch who “magicked him” the job.
Julian Sanchez (Stan), Dierdre O’Connell (Becky)
At total loss, she goes to see the witch (Candy Buckley) – cue parting curtains, colored lights, oowee music. The stranger seems to know everything about her client. Cost for “saving” Gail and, and of course, love, because everyone’s also looking for love, is $400. Bob lends her the money without requesting a reason. Becky carries out dictated rituals and achieves parts of both her desires, but things are complicated.
Barnard White (Bob), Dierdre O’Connell (Becky)
Gail is released and returns home. She’s an insecure teenager who fears following her mentally ill mother’s footsteps – death by overdose. Becky is manically, if understandably, overprotective, yet we observe her popping opioids like potato chips. Justification is pain of endometriosis (a chronic disease occurring when tissue that originates from the lining of the uterus starts growing elsewhere). The doorbell rings. It’s Gail’s new boyfriend Stan (the boy at the desk), met while incarcerated. Much to Becky’s distress, he’s not only an ex-addict, but a Wiccan (a modern pagan religion sometimes utilizing magical rites). Bob has always had a soft spot for Becky, but remains married.
Our heroine goes back to the witch at an additional cost of $200. Further wishes come “true,” but with repercussions. Like dominoes, the chain of spells tips. Becky goes drolly afoul of the law and is locked up. Her medication is confiscated. Withdrawal manifests as hallucinations of her ancestor’s trial in the 1600s. She then faces her own day in court.
Dierdre O’Connell (Becky), Alicia Crowder (Gail)
A cogent essay by playwright Sarah Ruhl about her intentions can be read in a separately purchased (for donation) souvenir program full of illuminating and entertaining articles. She reiterates a theory (expounded by Becky) that besides reflecting McCarthyism, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (his play about the Salem witch trials) because “he wanted to bed Marilyn Monroe and felt guilty that he was married and she was young.” Ruhl conjectures the real John Procter secretly desired 11 year old Abigail Williams whom he condemned as a witch. In the play, Gail’s school is putting on Crucible under the aegis of a director who instructs the girls to dance naked in the woods in order to understand their roles, then films it. (A fact that emerges in a single line of dialogue, curiously with no reaction.)
Dierdre O’Connell (Becky), Candy Buckley (the witch)
Ruhl calls “allowing our own personal and cultural experiences to distort historical fact and record, historical imposition.” She suggests that productions of The Crucible /discussions of the Salem Witch Trials by educational institutions rarely examine why events occurred or compare them with contemporary treatment of women. (Echoes of Trump’s “burn the bitch! and “it’s a witch hunt!”) I suspect she’s quite right. We see no sign of the heroine being persecuted because of her sex, however. The serious subject unfortunately arrives looking like Becky’s boredom and penchant to embroider fact.
As to the opioid crisis, Ruhl points out (again in the essay) that Massachusetts is one of ten states with the highest casualties due to opioid overdoses in the country, yet despite Becky’s (downplayed) withdrawal, railing at the Sacklers, and even the sight of the police officer surreptitiously popping her pills, the issue skates by without real impact.
These concerns are valid and topical, but because the play doesn’t know whether it’s a black comedy or a piece of magical realism, impact is minimized. Becky Nurse of Salem seems ungapatchka (over busy).
The usually reliable Dierdre O’Connell (Becky) doesn’t understand the tenor of the play any more than we do. It shows too much.
As the witch, Candy Buckley makes up her own annoyingly absurd accent. She’s so matter of fact about rituals, they become uninteresting. What should be at least an intriguing character, falls flat.
Tina Berko’s Shelby is a tightly wound caricature. When humanity later blooms, it’s not credible.
Bernard White (Bob) is the standout. He’s believably (successively) straight arrow, wonderfully goofy in love and lust, decisively moral, and honest. A pleasure to watch.
Director Rebecca Taichman, whose work I’ve admired in the past, doesn’t helm the piece with surety. Pacing and staging are skillful, individual scenes sometimes work, but approach is all over the place, flow jerks. Nothing holds it together.
Ricardo Hernandez’s stark set is mixed in effect. A back wall of boards depicts New England. There are two Salem Museum mannequins, one oddly without a face and frankly extraneous, the other so unnervingly realistic, we constantly expect her to come to life. (Having her eyes light up red at one point is just ridiculous.) Potion and artifact containers lack personality. A giant, hanging raven’s wing is marvelous. There are additionally projections of birds in flight (Tal Yarden) but only a single avian reference in the entire play. Why then? Yarden’s trees look evocatively like etchings.
Costumes by Emily Rebholz work well.
Dialogue coach Amanda Quaid apparently had little success with actors who fade in and out of Massachusetts accents when they even try.
Photos by Kyle Froman
Becky Nurse of Salem by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Lincoln Center Theater at The Mitzi E. Newhouse