Witches, Opioids, Misogyny, and a Dash of Feminism: Sarah Ruhl Concocts a Comedy

As with many of her plays, ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ ponders the odd twists and outsize emotions that shape everyday life with both probing intelligence and whimsy.

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

How could one possibly reflect on both the Salem witch trials and our ongoing opioid crisis and end up with a comedy that’s ultimately as heartwarming as it is wacky?

Leave it to Sarah Ruhl, whose plays — among them “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” — have pondered the odd twists and outsize emotions that shape everyday life with both probing intelligence and whimsy, often through a patently feminist lens. In “Becky Nurse of Salem,” the title character is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of numerous women accused of witchcraft in the 17th century and later immortalized — with some creative liberties taken, as Ms. Ruhl points out — in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

Becky, played with predictable gusto by theater veteran Deirdre O’Connell, is introduced to us while working as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft. As a native with genetic ties, Becky assures us, she knows the joint and the history behind it far better than her lavishly educated boss, whose icy priggishness is made hilarious by a bone-dry Tina Benko.

Becky informs us, for instance, that an integral figure in the trials who was depicted in “The Crucible” as a vindictive temptress of 17, Abigail Williams, was in fact an 11-year-old child. John Proctor, the flawed but seemingly noble man who is undone by her in Miller’s play, more likely “molested” the girl, Becky reckons — though as Ms. Ruhl noted in a 2019 essay, there is no evidence that Proctor and Williams met before both arrived in court.

The long history of women and girls getting an unfair rap holds a lot of resonance for Becky, who is facing the task of raising a troubled teenage granddaughter alone. Drugs have played a central role in her circumstances, and yet as the play unfolds she is still popping pills for “chronic pain” — or “lady stuff,” as she clarifies at one point, noting they were prescribed by her gynecologist.

Certainly, Becky’s gender figures into her suffering in more than a physical sense. After losing her job, she consults a local witch of the New Age variety, played by Candy Buckley with a droll accent and impeccable comic timing. The witch’s proffered cures, while not narcotic, are at least as pricey as those one would acquire through a doctor — or a drug dealer, for that matter.

When a botched attempt to steal a statue from the museum lands her in jail, visions of Salem past and present intertwine. Forced into withdrawal, Becky begins to hallucinate; like the dreaming Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” she casts members of her inner circle — family, friends, adversaries — as other characters. The jailer, an alternately amiable and oppressive buffoon deftly played by Thomas Jay Ryan, becomes a judge; Becky’s granddaughter, portrayed with spunk and compassion by Alicia Crowder, morphs into Miller’s scheming Abigail.

There are references to modern examples and distortions of misogyny: A crowd surrounds Becky at one point, chanting, “Lock her up,” and Donald Trump’s voice can be heard on the jailer’s radio, complaining that a witch hunt is being directed against him. Ms. Ruhl also contemplates how faith can work in less twisted capacities; Bernard White gently plays an old friend who clearly fancies Becky but is wracked with Catholic guilt, and an endearing Julian Sanchez is cast as a fledgling Wiccan who’s sweet on the granddaughter.

Director Rebecca Taichman and her design team mine all this historical and spiritual baggage with the grace and humor the text demands. Birds figure prominently in Tal Yarden’s projections, particularly in the second act, as Becky at long last begins to find her own wings.

“I don’t ask that you pity me,” Ms. Ruhl’s hard-luck heroine tells a judge — a real one, not a hallucination — toward the end. “I do ask that you imagine me to be real.” Its light hand notwithstanding, “Becky Nurse of Salem” makes her plight, and those of so many women like her, as authentic as it is illuminating.

The New York Sun

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