A wax statue of a 17th-century Salem woman stands at the center of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater’s spare stage. We’re in the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, and this woman, wearing a fearsome scowl and a black frock, was one of the victims of the town’s infamous witch trials.
If that brings to mind your English class lesson on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” or what Becky, a Salem museum tour guide, dismissively refers to as her town’s “goddamn Christmas pageant,” that’s part of the intention of this new Sarah Ruhl play, “Becky Nurse of Salem.” The Lincoln Center production, which was directed by Rebecca Taichman and opened on Sunday, brings in the witches but forgets the magic.
Becky (Deirdre O’Connell), who introduces herself to the audience as an ancestor of the wax woman, Rebecca Nurse, goes off script delivering a colorful, expletive-ridden summary of Miller’s work to a tour group. On another tour, she sets the record straight on “The Crucible”: Abigail, the young woman who supposedly seduced the older, married John Proctor, wasn’t 17 as rendered in the play, but 11. And that one of Miller’s personal inspirations for the work was his lust for the younger Marilyn Monroe.
After Becky is fired for her improvisations, she turns to a local witch (Candy Buckley) for help. One spell leads to another, and soon Becky is magically manipulating her interpersonal relationships, including that with her longtime friend (and crush) Bob (Bernard White) and her granddaughter, Gail (Alicia Crowder), who has been hospitalized for depression.
When Becky isn’t dealing with the repercussions of using hocus-pocus to fix her life, she’s conversing with her dead daughter or stepping into Rebecca’s memories. And the play is strongest in these scenes, when it bridges Rebecca Nurse’s witch trial with Becky Nurse’s contemporary witchcraft.
In her afterword to the play, Ruhl (“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” “The Clean House”) writes, “I thought that I would end up writing my own historical drama about the Salem witch trials, but every time I tried to dip my toe into the 17th century my pen came back and told me to stay in my own era.” That bit of authorial indeterminacy, unfortunately, is apparent in the script, whose disparate elements are like individual puzzle pieces rather than one cohesive portrait.
The technical elements also feel incongruous. The folky original music, composed by the singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, is too sentimental for the show’s tone. And the lighting, a range of flashy disco-magic hues and otherworldly flickering designed by Barbara Samuels, comes across as too enchanting for a staging that is short on whimsy. Riccardo Hernández’s set design leaves a lot to the imagination — a large black feathered wing is suspended from the ceiling, while an unadorned stage with a cedar clapboard back wall evokes the forest.
Set during the Trump presidency, “Becky Nurse of Salem” obliquely comments on the ways women are portrayed and judged in society. The most exciting part of this work is halfway through, when the cast, all in Puritan garb, circle Becky, now Rebecca, chanting “lock her up.” Suddenly the play becomes frightening, the stakes more immediate. But soon the references are dropped and the play moves on.
Then there are Becky’s more existential issues: She feels trapped in her hometown, facing limited job prospects, being in love with her married best friend, and trying to raise a granddaughter. Also in the mix is opioid addiction, which has rocked Becky’s family.
The more realistic bits of Becky’s story feel like little more than loose sketches of characters and circumstances, and there’s a lack of chemistry among cast members. Her boss at the museum, Shelby (Tina Benko), is a sneering academic with little empathy. Bob is the sweet friend who’s always loved her. Gail is the grieving teenager who wants to both connect with and liberate herself from Becky. And Stan (Julian Sanchez), Gail’s new morose, goth boyfriend, seems to be there to provide another conflict in Gail and Becky’s relationship.
O’Connell, who won a Tony this year for her performance in Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” elevates the not quite three-dimensional Becky, giving her a rough-around-the-edges New England charm — along with the nasal, r-dropping accent to match.
The production, under Taichman’s tepid direction, is full of short scenes whose transitions have the cast quickly and unceremoniously rolling furniture on and off the set. O’Connell carries much of the humor, but otherwise the show’s comic timing is oddly off, and flat attempts at laughs, like the witch’s unique pronunciations of words like “oil” (“ull”), are unrelenting.
In its final minutes, “Becky Nurse of Salem” tries to wrest its themes together via a heartfelt monologue and a cloying ritual. But by that time it’s too late. The play spends two hours dancing around a vaguely defined feminist message. That’s the very problem in this production: It hasn’t figured out the spell that will bring real magic to the stage.
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