Dressed in Puritan garb, an ensemble cast shouts “Lock Her Up!” while encircling a woman with her hands tied behind her back.
This anachronistic scene – deliberately echoing televised news reports which first appeared in 2016 – marks the end of Act 1 of Sarah Ruhl’s new play Becky Nurse of Salem, currently onstage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Manhattan.
NOTE: This article contains spoiler references to Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible. Ye have been warned!
The character of Becky Nurse is perfectly embodied by acclaimed actress Deirdre O’Connell (who won a Tony Award for her raw performance in last season’s Dana H ). After losing her job at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft – located in, of course, Salem, Massachusetts – Becky attempts to procure another job, but to no avail. So, she seeks guidance and “spells” from a local witch with a curious accent in the hopes of finding purpose, love, and a new source of income. In a recent interview, director Rebecca Taichman describes Becky’s journey as “stepping into courage in a broken, very crazy world” amongst neighbors who glorify (or, at least, continue to profit from) the horrendous acts committed against the women of their town.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl claims that the inspiration to write Becky Nurse of Salem hedged on the election of Donald Trump in 2016, along with memories of seeing productions of Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible (which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1953 and has become a theatrical staple ever since).
The troubling nature of the plot of The Crucible, which places blame on the character of Abigail Williams – based on a real girl who was 11-years-old at the time – stirred her. Sarah Ruhl asked herself why the real blame shouldn’t have fallen on John Proctor who, after all, had relations with such a young girl? In the wake of “Lock Her Up!” (the chant originally directed toward Hilary Clinton at innumerable Trump rallies), Sarah Ruhl aimed to show the tragic life of Becky Nurse trying to gain some semblance of control over her life by any means possible.
I read The Crucible (although not in school, as Becky Nurse presumes) and acted in a community theater production of it in high school, and I noticed the shouts of disdain for the play itself ringing throughout Becky Nurse of Salem. It felt as though Sarah Ruhl harbored personal ill-will towards Arthur Miller or at least jealousy at the fact that The Crucible remains so present in the American Theatre canon.
At one point Becky likens John Proctor’s affair with Abigail Williams to Arthur Miller lusting after Marilyn Monroe…
At one point Becky likens John Proctor’s affair with Abigail Williams to Arthur Miller lusting after Marilyn Monroe, years before she finally became his wife until 1956. The dynamics of power, age, and class also show up for Becky as she finds herself falling in love, as well as dealing with the modern-day criminal justice system. (Sadly, however, the play begs the question of whether Becky herself would have received such lenient treatment had she not been so identifiable as an aging white woman.)
What I remember most about The Crucible were the undertones of black listing and “red scare” of the McCarthy Era. The shaming, naming, and blatant betrayal of a community by its own members exemplified the fear harbored within the entertainment industry during the 1950s. People of high regard with so much to lose, saw the fall of not just their social standing, but their careers and livelihoods.
As a mere museum tour guide, of course, Becky does not hold much power within the Salem community (which makes her downfall after the loss of her job even more tragic). When Becky is arrested for stealing the museum’s wax figure of the original Becky Nurse (her own ancestor), Salem’s powerful are shown kicking her while she is already down. Her personal life further crumbles when Becky (who has already lost her daughter) loses her grip as the primary caregiver for her granddaughter Gail.
In this era of “cancel culture,” celebrities are deemed beyond redemption and essentially removed from the zeitgeist due to offensive behavior or transgression. When John Proctor refuses to lie and admit to witchcraft, he pays for it with his life. Did the town of Salem aim to “cancel” Becky, a woman with few social supports and no financial safety net? In The Crucible, the trial surrounds the discussion of the presence of witchcraft overtaking the adolescents of the town.
The town of Salem believed in the existence of witches…
For a town that believed in the existence of witches, the ambiguity of the trial carried weight and the moral struggle of honesty in the face of mob psychology. Similarly, Becky breaks into a public building and steals a statue from a museum which does not allow for a gray area. Becky steals what she thinks to be rightfully hers – the wax statue of her ancestor Becky Nurse – opening the door to the question of colonization (which, unfortunately, never gets adequately addressed during the play itself).
If the goal was to garner sympathy for a woman down on her luck and struggling with opioid addiction, Becky’s subsequent imprisonment illuminates the flaws in our justice system, not a moral failing. Witnessing the play from far house right, I could see the officer who arrested Becky repeatedly partaking in her confiscated opioid pills.
One of the running gags in the script is the debate about whether the site of the infamous Salem Gallows now holds a Dunkin’ Donuts or a Walgreens. This debate actually occurred in real life. Sarah Ruhl cites this factoid as the moment when the play truly came to her, but the repetition of this detail does not appear to set the scene for the play. If anything, it trivializes the atrocities committed in this town without delving into the ramifications of how these 17th century events reverberate into the present.
The potential for a modern retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, pertaining to women who involve themselves in revisionist history, holds a lot of potential. It seems that Sarah Ruhl – through the voice of Becky Nurse – really wants her audience to understand the age gap power dynamics of The Crucible, but I find myself more interested in Becky’s innermost thoughts and emotions, and they don’t really get unpacked in this play. I wanted to know more, in particular, about her relationship with her daughter, and the transferential guardian role that she plays with her granddaughter.
Bottom Line: While I have been a fan of Sarah Ruhl’s writing in the past – especially In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) – Becky Nurse of Salem flew off the handle as it tried to toe the line between fantasy and reality.
© Taylor Beckman (11/13/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Note that there really is a “witch museum” in Salem (MA). Click HERE to take a virtual tour!
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Photo of Taylor Beckman taken at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center (NYC) by FF2’s EIC Jan Lisa Huttner.
Graphics scanned from the brilliant program cover created by Eric Hanson. All Rights Reserved by Lincoln Center.