It took 329 years for the last of the supposed Salem witches to be exonerated. The conviction of Elizabeth Johnson, Jr. (her mother, also Elizabeth Johnson, also convicted of witchcraft, had been cleared earlier), stood until July of 2022, partly because she had no descendants who’d fought over the intervening centuries to clear her name. The majority of the witch trials didn’t even happen in the place that is known as Salem today, but in Salem Village, now Danvers, Massachusetts. There are hundreds of practicing witches in Salem today–it’s the city’s major tourist draw–albeit operating under a very different understanding of witchcraft than prevailed in 1692. Meanwhile, in modern political discourse, the term “witch hunt” has come to be used metaphorically in almost the exact opposite sense of its literal meaning–rather than describing an unfounded abuse of power against the innocent and powerless, it’s used when someone in power objects to their actions being questioned. How do we–as individuals, as women, as communities, as a country–make sense of these contradictions? How do we hold simultaneously the stories told about our past, our own knowledge of reality, and our own desire to be free of those legacies?
Becky Nurse, the woman at the center of Sarah Ruhl’s new dark comedy, Becky Nurse of Salem, is descended from Rebecca Nurse, one of the fourteen women (out of nineteen people) hanged during the Salem Witch Trials. (The play notes, trivially but truthfully, that Mitt Romney and Lucille Ball are among Nurse’s many descendants.) Becky (Deirdre O’Connell), born and raised in Salem, suspects that she will be one of “those who are buried in the same ground where they were born,” winding up one foot away from her mother and one foot away from her daughter. There are pilgrims and there are homebodies, she says, and she fears she’s missed her chance to break free of the place that murdered her ancestor.
It’s peak Trump-era America, and Becky is struggling. Her local paper has barely one job at a time in the want ads suitable for someone who never went to college. The fifteen-year-old granddaughter Becky is raising can barely count the number of her classmates who’ve died from overdoses and her granddaughter’s boyfriend is a seventeen-year-old recovering addict and runaway. Becky’s long-over marriage was wrong from the beginning and her daughter died too young and Becky has her own complicated relationship with prescription drugs. She’s scraping by giving tours at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, spending her days in the company of a wax figure of her ancestor (the truly creepy waxwork is the highlight of Riccardo Hernández’s set design) and recounting the events that are both the town’s tragedy and its income stream. And she reckons every day with the legacy not just of the witch trials themselves, not just with her own historical connection to them, but with the legacy of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, a text so many of us read in high school, which has become a primary lens through which America views these historical events despite its very great, and very misogynistic, deviations from the historical record. As she says, “The Crucible is the story of one virtuous man but in real life, Salem is the story of fourteen dead women.” (Ruhl’s afterword reminds us that Abigail Williams, who in Miller’s telling concocts the witchcraft accusations in an attempt to get rid of her lover John Proctor’s wife, was, in fact, eleven years old.) The new museum director, Shelby (Tina Benko), takes a dim view of Becky’s approach to the material, and in short order, Becky is fired, ostensibly for using profanity with a Catholic school tour group, but also because she doesn’t fit the image of the museum that the snottily professorial Shelby is trying to project.
Getting fired is a disaster for many reasons, not least because she needs health insurance more than ever right now, as Gail (Alicia Crowder), her granddaughter, is about to be released from an inpatient psychiatric hospital stay and still needs care. Becky, like most of America, can’t even come up with $400 in an emergency, so the cost of COBRA is not even conceivable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, which is how the pragmatic Becky finds herself consulting a witch (Candy Buckley)–she goes in for help getting a new job, and winds up with a series of expensive rituals and prescriptions designed to remove “the Nurse curse”. . . and also to find said job, to get rid of Gail’s eyeliner-wearing Wiccan boyfriend Stan (Julian Sanchez), and to seduce her own longtime friend/briefly high-school sweetheart Bob (Bernard White). Most of this doesn’t exactly work out as planned, and by act 2, things have gotten even worse for Becky, who winds up both in jail and falling through “a pinhole in history” to become the first Rebecca Nurse in a dream/hallucination, even as Gail is cast in her high school’s production of The Crucible (what other play could they do in Salem High School, I suppose). The real version and the fictional, drawing them together, weighing them both down. (This is all very slippery, though, as Ruhl quotes from actual trial transcripts in the historical flashback, but doesn’t follow them literally; she too is grappling with how we tell these stories.) Gail, meanwhile, learning from the best, writes her own epilogue: “Every time another woman takes a bow in The Crucible, another lie is told about how the lust of young women destroys good men.”
O’Connell, as ever, is a wonder, making Becky so lived-in, so maddeningly and heartbreakingly determined both to do the right thing and to shoot herself in the foot every step of the way, that you see how she ultimately charms prickly characters like Shelby and Stan, with no good reason to like Becky. (Benko’s performance is a little mannered throughout, even as she proves herself to have a heart, but Sanchez’s earnestness as he shifts from skeptic to ally feels genuine and earned.)
Taichman and the designers keep the focus squarely on O’Connell’s Becky, the center of virtually every scene. The other performances all have a measure of restraint; Becky always burns just a little brighter than everyone she’s around. Hernández’s set and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are simple and utilitarian, sketching in the necessary furniture to define a place and strategically using pilgrim garb to remind us where and when we are, either literally or ironically, as when Becky gets arrested wearing the faux pilgrim attire she’s adopted for her DIY witch tours. Tal Yarden’s projections are beautiful yet could be stripped back a little, saving them for moments where they add emotional weight.
I feel that I should repeat at this point that all this heavy material notwithstanding, the play is at its heart a comedy, never more than in the slapstick machinations of Becky executing the witch’s instructions, even as she’s both deeply skeptical of them and going deeper into debt to Bob with each new ointment and crystal. But Taichman and Buckley also push the character herself in the direction of surface comedy (not least with her truly peculiar accent, which I found distractingly odd), which somewhat blurs the questions raised by her presence here. She’s scamming Becky, of course, but she’s also setting currents in motion that have impact–as, it seems, does the ritual Stan and Gail do in hopes of getting Becky out of prison. I find myself wondering how we’re supposed to come down on the idea of magic in the play’s world, in the end–even if from the audience’s perspective it works as the deus ex machina that pushes Becky to pull together the strands of her life and her history and the world to push through and survive.
It’s a comedy, really, in the Shakespearean sense, both funny in the moment and destined toward an ending that brings some hope without ever denying the tragedies and traumas that came before, that builds on the idea of the “strange, sudden little famil[ies]” that we build ourselves in the theater and in life. Becky is mad at the world, and the world sure isn’t treating her too well, but, as Bob says, she is utterly, utterly herself.
In the speech she makes to the court in her defense, Becky says, “I do ask that you imagine me to be real.” That simple act–remembering that the people around us, beyond the stories we tell, the histories we inhabit, the burdens we bear, are real–is one half of where the play’s, and Ruhl’s, hope lies. But the other lies in Gail: taking the story she’s given into her own hands, and writing it a new ending. In the face of all of the problems facing this family, facing America, I don’t know if any of this will be enough, but I will cling to the hope nonetheless.