'BECKY NURSE OF SALEM'S WITCH TRIAL
I’ve got to get a word in on Becky Nurse of Salem, which will close this week at Lincoln Center Theater. Reviews of this show were pretty dismissive. I still wanted to catch it because I admire the writing of playwright Sarah Ruhl. I was rewarded with an utterly engaging 2 hours in the theater — a thought provoking, furiously imaginative play; a smashing performance by recent Tony Awardee Deirdre O’Connell, who is onstage almost end-to-end; a strong supporting cast; a bewitching set; lots of earned laughs. And I came out thinking, what else do critics want from an evening in the theater, if Becky Nurse of Salem does not suffice?
I’m not suggesting this is an epic play. I’m stating that this is the kind of original new work that theater thrives on. Given a chance.
The plot is simply this: Becky Nurse works as a guide at the local witch museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She shares the same surname as an accused witch, Rebecca Nurse, who was hung for witchcraft during the infamous 1692-1693 trials. Becky believes herself to be a distant descendant. Her life is a mess; Becky believes she is cursed. Certainly she is recognizable as a modern-day American archetype: working class, quickly out of work (her instability gets Becky booted from her job) susceptible to fake news (in the shaky guidance from a modern-day witch she becomes entwined with), and hooked on opioids (which also killed her daughter).
I love how Sarah Ruhl fleshes out these schematics and how Deirdre O’Connell embodies them. I found O’Connell’s utterly compelling Becky incredibly unlikeable — which by my very personal acting yardstick is the ultimate tribute to a performance; it takes acting guts to not ask an audience to like you. I loved the kneecapping of Arthur Miller for misogyny in his own far more famous witch trial play, The Crucible (which I also still like). I found the “witch trial” resonances with our own Trumpian moment inescapably apt.
Finally, I found Becky Nurse of Salem’s modestly happy ending refreshing. When was the last time you saw a play about today’s American working class that embraced its characters without slaughtering them at the end in a murderous Shakespearean tempest of pills and suicide? Let ‘em live, I say, at least once in a while.
Same goes for this play. Why kill it off? I just don’t get it.