Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem” falters tying 17th century of oppression of “witches“ to today’s women’s issues

By Lucy Komisar

Deirdre O’Connell as Becky Nurse with wax statue of Puritan, photo Kyle Froman.

Deirdre O’Connell is wonderful as Becky, the neurotic inheritor of the mantle of 17th century Salem’s witchcraft victims. She is as out-front and aggressive as her flaming red hair. But the Sarah Ruhl play she inhabits is a confusion of current issues (depression and opioids), fantasy witching (potions to make people fall in and out of love) and suggestion that the present echoes the bad historic past.

If “lock her up” in Puritan times is supposed to echo attacks on Hillary Clinton (which Ruhl says in an article about the play), you’ve already lost me, because being female is no excuse for corrupt politics. Remember the welfare so-called “reform” she supported along with husband Bill that continued Reagan’s “welfare queen” theme, ended support to families with children and threw millions of poor women and their kids into poverty. Not my feminism.

Julian Sanchez as Stan and Deirdre O’Connell as Becky, photo Kyle Froman.

Becky works as a guide in a Salem museum and shoots herself in the foot by using four-letter words to high school students. She is fired by the self-important academic (Tina Benko) who runs the place.

Stan (Julian Sanchez) a clerk at a Marriott’s where she seeks a job sends her to the witch who helped him find his. Candy Buckley is dreadful as the witch, who, for some reason, pronounces oi as er, as in oil and erl. And wants $400 to start her witchcraft.

Deirdre O’Connell as Becky and Alicia Crowder as Gail, photo Kyle Froman.

The rest is somewhere between soap opera and sitcom, except there are only a few one-liners that made me laugh. The mood set by director Rebecca Taichman didn’t help.

Becky has to deal with her granddaughter Gail (a very good Alicia Crowder) who just got out of being hospitalized for depression. Her mother died from opioid addiction started when Becky gave her pills to combat pain from kidney disease.

Asserting her inherited woman’s victimhood, Becky says she is descended from Rebecca Nurse, one of the victims of the witchcraft trials.

Deirdre O’Connell as Becky and the Puritan accusers, photo Kyle Froman.

In the trials, John Proctor is named as having been seduced by a young girl. Becky says she was 11; she (Ruhl) attacks Arthur Miller for saying in “The Crucible” that she was 17. And Proctor was 35 instead of in his 60s.

Becky/Ruhl says this was because Miller was lusting after Marilyn Monroe. Which is how he shows Proctor in the play. The Crucible folks appear only briefly, marching in a circle and chanting.

Deirdre O’Connell as Becky and Candy Buckley as the Witch, Photo Kyle Froman.

Meanwhile, Becky gets the witch to break up a romance between Stan and Gail. And make married bartender Bob (Bernard White) fall in love with her. Then she messes that up by telling him the ruse.

I was still waiting for the feminism when all the loose ends got magically tied up in the traditional male-female connections.

“Becky Nurse of Salem.” Written by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 165 East 65th Street, NYC. Runtime 2 hrs. Opened Dec 4, 2022, closes Dec. 31, 2022. Masks required.

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