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Theatre in Review: Becky Nurse of Salem (Lincoln Center Theatre/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre)

Deirdre O'Connell, Candy Buckley. Photo: Kyle Froman

Is Deirdre O'Connell a witch? You have to wonder. She is certainly a practiced spellbinder, a talent that she exercises to the infinite benefit of Sarah Ruhl's latest offering. She enters -- totally frazzled, her hair a plundered bird's nest, her faced fixed in a half-smile that might be a grimace of embarrassment or pain -- looking like hell, and yet she instantly captivates. Rattling off a list of oddball fun facts -- Did you know Lucille Ball and Mitt Romney are connected to the Salem witches? -- she commands our attention with the authority of a motivational speaker. There's something supernatural about her ability, even in her character's moments of breakdown or fury, to make the audience her confidant, offering us a guided tour of a mad, mad world.

This is an especially useful skill in Becky Nurse of Salem, where O'Connell is the title character, a docent at a Salem, Massachusetts museum dedicated to the witch trials. Becky's ancestor and namesake was one of the convicted, which, one supposes, gives her a certain authority on the topic. ("Rebecca Nurse was this old pious woman, a little hard of hearing in one ear," she notes. "You might say she was put to death because she couldn't hear the judge's question.") One the other hand, she's a slightly odd pick for the job, looking like she tumbled out of bed fifteen minutes earlier and departing, often wildly, from the standard script. Expressing surprise that one of her charges on a school tour is unfamiliar with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, she announces, "It's like our goddam Christmas pageant here in Salem," presenting her own potted summary of the play's plot, complete with historical corrections and lots of profanity.

Such behavior, coupled her with habit of enjoying beery lunchtimes at a nearby tavern, get Becky called on the carpet by her boss Shelby (Tina Benko, smooth as Teflon, especially when shedding troublesome employees.) Thus, she adds unemployment to a list of woes that includes an attachment to Bob, a married bartender addicted to PBS documentaries; her rebellious, fresh-out-of-rehab granddaughter Gail; and a reliance on opioids to deal with chronic pain caused by endometriosis. (There's also the dire fate of her absent daughter, which, we will eventually learn, haunts both Becky and Gail.) Getting desperate, Becky starts dabbling in witchcraft and thievery (nabbing a wax figure from the museum), activities that have her facing a stretch in jail.

To a point, Becky Nurse of Salem has a solid grasp of working-class lives poised on the edge, in constant danger of sliding into ruin. Becky, plagued by unemployment, lack of savings, poor health care, and a family ravaged by addiction, is a true representative of our uncaring time. But, in setting the action against the background of the 2016 election and throwing in bizarre fantasy sequences in which Becky stands in for Rebecca, surrounded by Puritans chanting, "Lock her up!", Ruhl overplays her hand, trying to construct a unified field theory of American misogyny that isn't fully supported by the play's action.

Indeed, as she notes in Lincoln Center Review, The Crucible is the real bee in Ruhl's bonnet. Outraged by Miller's plot -- in which the ulterior, designing adolescent Abigail Williams, inflamed with lust for the older, married John Proctor, unleashes the entire ugly chain of events -- she intends her play to be a correction of sorts. (Among her interesting, if slightly off-topic, points: The Crucible is informed by Miller's guilty, adulterous fascination with Marilyn Monroe, a reductive argument that may be taken with a substantial pinch of salt.) But Becky's problems are many and varied, including some notably poor personal choices, and her story is an uneasy mélange of comic, dramatic, and magical elements spiked with textual exegesis and feminist commentary. Its plot is less than persuasive, its comedy surprisingly mild, and its ideas often too obviously imposed on the action. It's a witches' brew that probably could have stood a little more time bubbling in the cauldron.

Nevertheless, director Rebecca Taichman shuffles all these elements with a juggler's skill, aided by a game cast. Candy Buckley, dressed and coiffed to look like Morticia Adams' nearsighted older sister, is suitably bizarre as the witch whom Becky consults, leading to all sorts of unexpected complications. Bernard White is a genial presence as Bob, who is persuaded, via magic charms, to commit adultery -- a sin that, in his case, comes with coronary repercussions. Alicia Crowder is solid as Gail who, at first glance, seems headed for big trouble, as is Julian Sanchez as Gail's rather older Goth boyfriend, who, in one of the play's less-convincing twists, turns out to be the member of a benign Wiccan coven. Thomas Jay Ryan makes the most of his brief appearances as Becky's jailer and the judge overseeing her case. (Amusingly, both Benko and Ryan appeared in Ivo van Hove's 2016 revisionist Broadway staging of The Crucible; Miller's play, it seems, is always with us.)

The production's design goes a long way toward knitting together the play's disparate elements. Riccardo Hernandez's set design with its curving walls, a wax figure installed in a vitrine, and enormous bird wings floating overhead, looks, amusingly, rather like a trendy museum exhibit. (His use of roll-on units to suggest various locations, keeps the action moving at a welcome clip.) Tal Yarden's projections cover the set with images of trees in winter and birds in flight; he also floods the stage deck with abstract color combinations when Becky undergoes withdrawal. Emily Rebholz's costumes take in well-observed contemporary wear and Puritan ensembles. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes a babble of TV commentators, disembodied voices during Becky's delirium, and solid reinforcement for Suzzy Roche's compositions.

And if Becky Nurse of Salem is something of a scattered affair, O'Connell provides the focus, making Ruhl's strongest points in a casual manner that catches one off-guard. ("The Crucible is the story of one virtuous man but in real life, Salem is the story of 14 dead women." That's hard to argue with.) It may not be a production to seek out, but Lincoln Center subscribers are likely to be happy to spend a couple of hours with Deirdre O'Connell as she conjures her own special form of necromancy.--David Barbour


(15 December 2022)

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