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Becky Nurse of Salem

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 4, 2022

Deidre O'Connell
Photo by Kyle Froman
Quirky is as quirky does in Sarah Ruhl's Becky Nurse of Salem, opening tonight at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. It is a play that covers a lot of bases: straight-up comedy, biting satire, angry polemic, a touching tale of love, and a smattering of witchcraft. A lot of bouncing around in tone, style and theme, to be sure. Yet, if you go with the flow, you'll find that it all connects with an internal logic of its own, held together by Rebecca Taichman's clear-eyed direction and the wonderful cast, featuring a pitch-perfect performance by Deirdre O'Connell, fresh off her Tony win for last season's strange-but-true tale of Dana H.

Who better to work as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft than Becky (O'Connell), a direct descendent of Rebecca Nurse, who, back in 1692, was hanged during the bloodbath of the Salem witch trials, and centuries later was resurrected as a character in Arthur Miller's The Crucible?

Well, maybe not, particularly if you expect your tour guides to stick to the official, sanctioned story. Because Becky is not one to mince words. She has plenty of unsanctioned things to say about the history book version of the trials, Miller, and The Crucible. She also has a few choice words to spew about the Sackler family and its role in the opioid crisis, but more on that later.

It's always awkward to find a way to provide necessary background for the audience without having the characters step out of character to address us directly. Here, Ruhl's solution is to place us among a group of high school girls, visitors to the museum. Becky is our guide, providing us with the basics of the trials and of the plot of The Crucible. Unfortunately, Becky's mouth often outpaces her thought processes. As her boss, Shelby (a marvelously dry Tina Benko), points out just before firing her: "the school teachers were very troubled when you said 'fuck' and 'whore,'" particularly since "today's group was from a Catholic school. The nuns complained."

So it's out the door with Becky, who has more problems than you can shake a stick at. Out of a job. Broke. No prospects. Scared for the teenage granddaughter (Alicia Crowder) she is raising. In love with her married ex-high school sweetheart (Bernard White), who still thinks of her as a friend. What to do? Where to turn? Why, to the neighborhood witch (Candy Buckley, wonderfully weird), of course. (Borrowed) money is exchanged. Spells are cast. And what happens? Becky winds up in jail, awaiting trial for breaking and entering, theft, and possession of drugs. Yes, it turns out that Becky is addicted to pain pills, and she gets caught with them while in jail; hence her outrage at the Sacklers, not to mention her nightmarish cold turkey withdrawal before facing the judge (Thomas Jay Ryan).

In the end, all of the many loose threads come together, and rather than incantations and burnt offerings, it is love that carries the day. In this light, perhaps it might be best to think of Becky Nurse of Salem as a sort of convoluted magical fairy tale. The off-the-wall plot twists notwithstanding, the adventures of Becky Nurse provide us with a delightfully offbeat evening of theater in the company of some first-rate actors. And that's witchcraft of the finest sort.

Becky Nurse of Salem
Through December 31, 2022
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 W 65th St. (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: