Sarah Ruhl rules! The MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award winner’s latest play, a world premiere, and her sixth at Berkeley Rep is a thoroughly captivating, charming, and ultimately satisfying quirky comedy that ponders the Salem witch trials and much more. With humor and insight, “Becky Nurse of Salem” explores family dynamics, contemporary politics, feminism, opiate addiction, and how Arthur Miller’s infatuation with Marilyn Monroe influenced his 1953 landmark opus, “The Crucible.”
With the first-rate direction of Anne Kauffman, “Becky Nurse of Salem” presents the loveably testy Becky (a standout performance by Pamela Reed), a modern-day resident of Salem, Massachusetts. Becky is a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the actual victims of the 17th century Salem witch trials. Becky’s daughter died from an opiate overdose, and now Becky is struggling to raise her teenaged granddaughter Gail (Naian González Norvind). When Becky is fired as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft for her blunt and caustically amusing asides from the museum’s mandated script, she panics and seeks the help of a modern-day witch (Ruibo Qian).
The witch seems to be aware of all of Becky’s desires, including her unexpressed love for her high school crush, now bar-owner, Bob (Adrian Roberts). With the otherworldly influences of potions and crystals, the witch seems to set everything right at first. But then, why does Becky land in jail? After a brilliant first act in this two and one-half-hour production (one intermission), act two falters just a bit as our buoyant Becky struggles to overcome her tribulations (and trials).
The plot twists mainly add, but sporadically detract, from Ruhl’s political theme of powerful women being maligned as witches in 17th century Salem and 21st century America. The phrases “witch hunt” and “lock her up” are never far from the playwright’s and the audience’s thoughts. And perhaps similar thinking led to Berkeley’s Shotgun Players’ current revival of Caryl Churchill’s “Vinegar Tom,” Caryl Churchill’s insightful drama with music about 17th-century English witches.
One of the highlights of “Becky Nurse of Salem” is Pamela Reed’s terrific performance as the irrepressible Becky. With a New England twang, Reed commands the stage as she bulldozes and cajoles her way through life. And it’s delightful that Ruhl presents us with a grandmother who is a loving, sexual being as well as a caring if burdened, grandma.
As is typical of Berkeley Rep, the staging of “Becky Nurse of Salem” is thoughtfully conceived and dramatically displayed, (Scenic Design, Louisa Thompson). The wax figures of the Salem witches in the museum, the spooky voices (Sound Design, Mikaal Sulaiman), and Russell H. Champs’ effective lighting design all add to the pleasure of the production.
Sarah Ruhl has had a long and productive partnership with Berkeley Rep. Her works, “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” “Eurydice,” “Dear Elizabeth,” “Three Sisters,” and “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” have all been produced by the Rep to critical and audience approval. Let’s hope for many more!
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved
This review originally appeared in berkeleyside.com