Arthur Miller’s mighty play, The Crucible, has withstood all manner of productions, from starry Broadway to high school drama club, and it will withstand Sarah Ruhl’s crass replay, Becky Nurse of Salem which just opened at Lincoln Center. But it is shocking that the award-winning contemporary playwright should descend to such theatrical lows.
The concept— if that does not overstate what is a wisp of an idea, barely a notion, really—is that a tour guide in a museum in contemporary Salem Massachusetts, is a descendant of the saintly historical woman, the 17th century Rebecca Nurse. In Miller’s play Rebecca Nurse is the most moral and most admired citizen of the town. Ruhl’s modern day Becky (Deirdre O’Connell), like her original, winds up in jail, first for unacceptable language, then for stealing a waxwork statue of a Puritan woman (whose presence is more convincing than any of the actors on stage).
Unlike Miller’s play which is stuffed with weighty complex ideas—historical, political, theatrical, philosophical, psychological—Ruhl’s play is about opioid addiction. It seems Becky’s daughter died of it and now Becky is raising her teenage granddaughter (Alicia Crowder)who’s been in a psych ward in rehab while her grandmother refills her prescription and develops a serious habit herself. Withdrawal, as anybody knows, is an ordeal, although the audience is spared none of the needless explanations.
Well, things go from bad to worse, script-wise: Becky’s high school crush but still the love of her life Bob (Bernard White) is now the local bartender. There is, too, a local witch (Candy Buckley) who provides expensive spells and love potions. The night desk clerk (Julian Sanchez) at the Marriot, the granddaughter’s love interest, is branded a wicken because of his tattoos. Of course the granddaughter is now in the cast of The Crucible in her school production—an idea that goes nowhere—and is reassured that “No one is lonely in a play.”
Compounding all this is Ruhl’s irrational grudge against Miller’s play for favoring a white man (John Proctor) over the women in the drama; check the feminist outrage box. She stoops so far as to have the cast, now dressed as Puritans, circle Becky while chanting “Lock her up.” This winking political allusion is as profound as this play gets.
Deirdre O’Connell is a much-admired actor, who here indulges in overacting of every sort, including tearful goodbye monologue; she leads the rest of the cast, under Rebecca Taichman’s indulgent direction, into the same embarrassing lack of subtlety. To complete this shambles of a production there is original syrupy music accompanied by projections of shadowy birds flying away.
Now playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, NYC; lct.org/shows/becky-nurse-salem/