Theater review by Raven Snook
The title character in Sarah Ruhl's bewitching but unruly new play, Becky Nurse of Salem, is a descendant of the real-life Rebecca Nurse, who was executed during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Her 2016 namesake is also having a devil of a time. Played by Deirdre O'Connell, who earned a Tony last year for Dana H., this Becky is a loquacious, f-bomb-dropping guide at the fictitious Salem Museum of Witchcraft. After getting fired by her haughty new boss (an underused Tina Benko), she turns to a modern-day witch (a delicious Candy Buckley, with an outrageous New England accent), who promises to lift her curse by conjuring up a new job, rekindling an old romance and springing her orphaned granddaughter from the mental ward.
At first, it works like a charm: Becky starts an affair with her married, bar-owning ex (Bernard White, endearing) and welcomes her 16-year-old grandchild (Alicia Crowder) back home with her Wiccan goth boyfriend (Julian Sanchez) in tow. But when she decides to conduct her own tours of Salem, Becky runs afoul of the law and winds up in jail, sparking an unsettling fever dream in which she transforms into her infamous ancestor as Puritans surround her crying the familiar refrain, "Lock her up! Lock her up!"
Ruhl seems to be interested in the ways in which historical hysteria gets echoed in today’s highly polarized America, but some of her parallels—such as those involving the denigration of women—are more convincing than others (as when she likens the opioid crisis to rye-bread-induced delirium). She also takes unsteady aim at Arthur Miller's admittedly unfeminist The Crucible: Becky has a rant about it and Gail, who has been cast in a high school production of it, pens her own angry epilogue. Intriguing ideas often feel grafted onto the story, especially in the second act as Ruhl maneuvers her quirky characters to an affecting finale.
Although director Rebecca Taichman elicits solid performances from most of the actors, she doesn’t manage to smooth over the tonal shifts from comedic to dogmatic to cloying. Suzzy Roche's saccharine folk soundtrack doesn't help. Even so, O'Connell works wonders with her performance as a sexy sexagenarian grappling with addiction, unemployment, late-in-life love and inherited trauma. Witch or not, she’s enchanting.
Becky Nurse of Salem. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. (Off Broadway). By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. With Deirdre O'Connell, Bernard White, Candy Buckley. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.