The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Lincoln Center Theater’s Becky Nurse of Salem
She stands there, draped in old-school costuming, reminiscent of The Crucible, a play, written by a Marilyn-obsessed Arthur Miller about the Salem witch trials. That in itself is a fascinating construct, but standing sour-faced and stone-cold before us, she doesn’t move, not giving away a hint of what this new play, Becky Nurse of Salem, written by Sarah Ruhl (For Peter Pan…), is all about. At first, I thought she was the real deal, and then she’s wheeled off by a fantastically hyper-charged Deirdre O’Connell (Broadway’s Dana H.) who is giving it her working-class all as the lead character, Becky, a maddened descendent from one of the witches burned at the stake in Salem, Mass. She’ll be our tour guide this evening, she tells us, regaling and informing us of the story of Rebecca Nurse, a simple innocent who was put to death because she couldn’t hear, sorry, sleep with, the correct man in power. It’s a laying out of the realm that this play is venturing into, and when the writing clicks, the play works. But when it veers off track and becomes muddled and overarching, much like Becky’s tour-guided dialogue, into the land of F-bombs and such, the play confuses and lets us down. Even when O’Connell’s Becky scores all the laughs that can be found in this convoluted play about sex, power, and denial.
The first scene resonates, much like that brilliantly crafted 1987 opening of the play Lettice and Lovage, the comical and satirical play by Peter Shaffer, that is centered around a flamboyant tour guide who loves to embellish the history of a country house she works within. Maggie Smith, who it seems the play was written for, (no surprise there), reveled in the part of Lettice Douffet, who, in a way, was the British equivalent of our Becky Nurse, the brash, loud, 62-year-old woman at the center of the play who goes off script in the same way as Lettice, but with a whole lot more of sexually charged, somewhat inappropriate language (to some). It doesn’t do her any help that she delivered the speech we are privy to a bunch of nuns and high school students. Like Lettice, Becky is promptly fired from her tour guide position at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, even though she belligerently states that because of her lineage, she has more right to be there giving tours than that boss of hers. That ‘bitch’, as she so lovingly calls her, is a tall, blond intellectual woman by the name of Shelby, played well by Tina Benko, who funny enough played Ann Putnam in the recent Broadway revival of The Crucible. Shelby wants her to stick to the storyboard, but instead, Becky flies free and wild, running off with that sour-faced woman who had earlier greeted us upon arrival.
Forced to return her stoic mannequin ancestor to the museum by the security guard, played hilariously by Thomas Jay Ryan (Broadway’s The Nap), who also dons the guise of Judge and Jailer, Becky goes for some liquid and friendly salvation at the local bar where she, mistakenly, has more of a liquid lunch than a healthy one each day. She seeks validation and comfort from her (seemingly) only friend, the owner, Bob, played by Bernard White (LCT3’s The Who & The What), who she has not-so-secretly been in love with since her high school days.
The themes and ideas are wheeled out as easily as that simple bar, crafted by set designer Riccardo Hernandez (LCT’s Admissions), with some fun lighting by Barbara Samuels (LCT’s In the Green), solid sound design by Palmer Hefferan (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), and some compelling projections by Tal Yarden (Broadway’s Network), but there are a lot. We understand the heartfelt connection to one another, and the care Bob has for Becky, and as played by O’Connell, her brashness is seen by him as a form of defense against all, especially the pain and loss that sits in her soul since her daughter died of an overdose in the Walgreens parking lot. Addiction seems to run strong in the family Nurse. Somehow he sees through it all, although I’m not sure I would or could completely, wanting to be there for Becky, even though he is married and struggling to stay afloat.
Becky’s life is also on the verge, and it doesn’t help that her troubled granddaughter, Gail, played true by Alicia Crowder (Netflix’s “The Society“) is coming home from rehab to live with Becky. Unable to find work and struggling against that pile of unpaid bills, Becky turns to witchcraft, naturally, even though she doesn’t really believe. The pills she pops like candy are from before, unrelated but enhanced by her current situation. She hires a local witch, played eccentrically by Candy Buckley (Broadway’s After the Fall), an act of desperation that she can’t afford. Referred by the tattooed stranger, Stan ((Live Arts’ Hand to God) who is soon to be, in Becky’s muddled mind, a bigger problem than she could ever know, the witch’s potions and spells begin to work, once she learns how to build a fire. The wishes and magic give Becky all the things that she thinks she wants or knows how to ask for, but as the first act rolls to an end, it’s clear that a mistake has been made, and the good fortune requested will not last. And probably shouldn’t. In a mirroring of the past, Becky finds herself in trouble once again, locked up in jail, and amazingly, surrounded by figures from the past, dressed, by costume designer Emily Rebholz (Broadway’s Indecent), like a sad production of The Crucible, in a manner to point fingers and falsely accuse the spinning Becky.
Withdrawal is at the heart of Act Two, with Becky going through it big time, hallucinating all those frumpy pilgrims that have gathered around her, accusing her, in the same way they did in her ancestry tour guide story. “I see crazy shit all night long,” she states, and we curiously join her for the ride, hoping to find some semblance to the proceedings. Ruhl really tries to cast a spell over numerous #MeToo markers in our world, those who understand the truth of persecution and those that find alternative stories that serve themselves better than the truth. We all know that framework, one can’t help but see parallels on CNN every day, and those that continue making excuses and false narratives to hold on to power they don’t really deserve to have. It’s all about the way “narratives of evil” are bent and created, leading to the “spread of fear and moral panic“. We see it in the news today, about drag queens reading books to children in libraries, and if we lived in the time of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, these weird protests would be more violent than they are, throwing people into jail, and burning them at the stake if they had their way.
Arthur Miller wrote his play at a time of desire and inability to act on those sexual impulses. Becky Nurse of Salem tries hard to envelop and put forth numerous ideas that stem from Miller’s complicated play and those puts forth about women and the power dynamics that are created to tie them to the stake. But the concepts and pathways get muddled, and as directed by Rebecca Taichman (NYTW’s Sing Street), the overwrought performances don’t clarify or let us in more deeply. In fact, they keep us at arm’s length, most of the time. O’Connell goes full-in for the laughs, but it doesn’t help the piece as a whole from burning up altogether. Too many little fires have been started, and no one is managing them as a unit. Some flicker out and become sidelined, while some run rampant overtaking the landscape that Ruhl attempted to create. She knows how to build a fire, like Becky had to learn, but never finds a way to take care of them so all those ideas and relationships can burn brightly together in the end. If she had, it could have been the full-on fire-starting season of the witch.