If you've spent any time on the Internet, you've encountered a meme: That's an image, often with a humorous caption, meant to convey an easily digestible message. Here's one erroneously suggesting that the Salem Witch Trials were bloodier and more sustained than similar panics in Europe. The creators of memes almost always have a political agenda, and when their subject is history, this necessitates a distortion of the facts. I couldn't help thinking about the art of meme creation as I watched Sarah Ruhl's Becky Nurse of Salem, now making its New York debut at Lincoln Center Theater.
It is inspired partly by the rage Ruhl felt after seeing a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible — specifically, how it distorted the actual motivation behind the Salem Witch Trials to make them about a young woman's desire for an older man. "In the play Abigail was 17 but in real life she was 11. Fact. In the play he's like: 'You whore! Stop tempting me.' And I'm like, um, she's 11. More likely that John Proctor molested — sorry — courted — Abigail."
So says Becky Nurse (Deirdre O'Connell), a descendant of the executed Rebecca Nurse and a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, but not for long: Her tendency to go off-script and spout "truths" (there's no evidence Abigail Williams and John Proctor ever met before the trials) irks her snooty college-educated boss, Shelby (Tina Benko, with her head held aloft), who promptly fires her.
Things go from bad to worse for Becky, who is addicted to pain pills, in love with a married bartender (a cuddly Bernard White), and unsettled by the relationship her teenage granddaughter, Gail (appropriately petulant Alicia Crowder), seems to be forming with a handsome young Wiccan (Julian Sanchez). Becky visits a local witch (Candy Buckley, sporting a hilariously outsize New England accent) whose expensive spells and potions seem to turn things around. But we know she's headed nowhere good when a cop (Thomas Jay Ryan) catches Becky leading her own unlicensed tours through Salem with the wax statue of Rebecca Nurse she snatched from her former employer.
"Lock her up! Lock her up," cry the townspeople, suddenly transformed into Puritans (a clever quick-change made possible by costume designer Emily Rebholz). We've seen this attempt to invoke Trumpian trauma before, but the trope has diminishing returns here.
Of course, Becky Nurse was originally slated to run in the summer of 2020, when anxiety about a Trump reelection would have been reaching a boil. Is this another case of a play made less timely by its Covid delay? It still wouldn't explain Becky's irrational behavior (she's worked at the museum long enough to know that there are security cameras), nor the rapid series of misfortunes that befall her in the second act, which she spends in pretrial confinement. It's clear that Becky Nurse isn't driven by the objectives of its characters, but the motives of its author.
Director Rebecca Taichman's tight staging somewhat clothes the naked contrivance of the script. Riccardo Hernández's scenic elements easily roll on and off, lit clearly and distinctly by Barbara Samuels. A second dummy of a grim Puritan woman overlooking the stage, representing the Nurse family curse that looms over Becky, makes for a heavy-handed flourish. So do Tal Yarden's screensaver projections, which are not as magical as they seem meant to be. The cast valiantly delivers three-dimensional performances throughout, despite the cardboard play world they have been asked to inhabit.
This is especially true of O'Connell, who remains one of the most gifted actors currently working. With a winning smile and an aura of mischief you can get behind, she embodies the fighting spirit of an older woman who isn't done yet, even though society would prefer to be done with her. We've seen her play this role, although never with the leaps of credulity Ruhl asks of both performers and audience.
Ultimately, Becky Nurse suffers most from a strict adherence to the manners and conventional wisdom of the culture in which it was written: It looks down its nose at the superstition of the Puritans, but is open to Wicca. Historic accusations of witchcraft are chalked up to misogyny, ignoring the material resentments and cynical social jockeying that might have prompted them. "The Sacklers should be in fucking jail, I should not be in fucking jail," Becky exclaims, pausing for applause that never arrives. I don't think this is because most of the audience at Lincoln Center works in pharma. Rather, it's because none of these ideas are new or remotely controversial.
When The Crucible debuted, America was still very much in the midst of a red scare, and mounting a play about an actual witch hunt as a thinly veiled jab at McCarthyism was controversial and even dangerous. Miller understood that we Americans have a cyclical propensity for moral panics, and it's hard to see how that has changed since 1953. That's why Becky Nurse of Salem will, at best, become a footnote to that great American drama.