‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ a Dark, Comedic Must-See at Lincoln Center
In Becky Nurse of Salem, Deirdre O’Connell (Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle award-winner for Dana H) is luminous. O’Connell portrays Becky Nurse, descendant of Rebecca Nurse who was convicted and hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials. The actor, incisively shepherded by director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) does a yeowoman’s job in a role that flies high in humor and crashes into tragedy and remorse at the two-act play’s heart-felt and satisfying conclusion.
Written by Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage) the play artfully rides on a meme printed on protest signs during the global Women’s March of 2017, a march which took place the day after former President Donald Trump’s sparsely attended Inaugural celebration. Some of the signs read: “We are the Great, Great, Great Granddaughters of the Witches You Were Not Able to Burn.” Selecting the concept that women have transported themselves from that time to this and achieved prodigious exploits, then have been regressed by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the Republican penchant for misogyny and repression of women’s rights, Ruhl’s play speaks to many issues with currency, vitality and humor.
Running at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the sardonic comedy investigates how the descendant of Rebecca Nurse has dealt with her haphazard life in Salem, Massachusetts, where she gives tours in the the Museum of Witchcraft, riding the coattails of her famous ancestor’s “cursed” reputation. On another level, Ruhl reveals that women still abandon each other and are abandoned by a culture surreptitiously steeped in patriarchal folkways, that suppress and stifle their growth professionally and individually. That rejection and judgment sets them up to pursue other ways to achieve what they want, some of them illegal and many of them ineffectual, causing them to plunge into a downward spiral, wasting their talents and intelligence.
Ruhl’s humor, under the clever direction of Taichman, develops into full blown belly laughs as Becky attempts to negotiate the ruins of her angst-ridden life, after telling off her new museum boss Shelby (Tina Benko). Her boss censures her for saying inappropriate epithets and getting carried away with what Shelby believes to be misinformation about “Gallow’s Hill.” Becky swears that the real place where Rebecca Nurse and the other women were hanged is on the spot of the second Dunkin’ Doughnuts farther away from the center of Salem. Shelby calls her down for spreading falsehoods, though clearly, as a non resident, she doesn’t have Becky’s information on the background of Salem.
Becky is the type of individual to be spunky, individualistic, strongly autonomous and not easily given to “obeying” someone she determines to be an inferior, despite her credentials. Though Becky apologizes, this isn’t enough for the arrogant Shelby who summarily fires her without hearing her pleas. It fits in with the plans for having the museum turn a profit without the overhead of salaries. Over ego and presumption, the competitive Shelby upends Becky’s financial security. The job has allowed Becky to support herself, pay her granddaughter Gail’s medical bills and generally get to the next day caring for herself and Gail. Shelby’s cruel firing leaves her with no recourse except to find another job in an area that has seen record unemployment. When Becky is cut out of the only job in town she is qualified for, Stan, who got the job, gives her the card of someone who can help her. She is a a witch.
Becky seeks the only safe place left open to her away from her own backward movement and regression. She goes to Stan’s recommended witch (the hysterical Candy Buckley whose twanging Boston accent is milked for well-placed laughs). Additionally, she also throws herself on the mercy of Bob (Bernard White), a high school sweetheart, now married, who owns a bar. She asks Bob for cash to pay the high-priced witch to end the Rebecca Nurse curse, and other expenses as the play unfolds with conflict upon conflict. Becky must reconcile her worsening problems or end up totally succumbing to the curse of her ancestor which appears to be directing her life toward complete failure and destitution.
Buckley’s Witch and O’Connell’s Becky make nefariously funny bosom buddies in changing the trajectory of Becky’s life since she can’t count on the culture to help her. Ruhl’s themes about women having to come up with ingenious ways to support themselves is clear in Becky’s reliance on witchcraft. The clever, randy spells that the Witch concocts for Becky prove to be effective on Bob who is entranced with his old sweetheart. Bob may be an answer to her financial problems, as men usually are for women who cannot sustain themselves due to a myriad of reasons, including unequal pay and unequal opportunities. The scene where Bob emerges in his underwear dancing to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” as Becky joins him and they have a mild sexual romp is priceless. The scene, the choice of music is superbly directed by Taichman for maximum humorous effect. Both actors carry if off with authenticity and hysterical playfulness.
Unfortunately, when things appear to be going swimmingly for Becky with her new love and revenge on her former boss succeeding when she falls and breaks a limb, the worm turns. The universe which has been bent to the arc of the two women’s magical contrivances upends. During Bob’s love fest with Becky, he collapses and has a heart attack which places him in the hospital. There, Bob has a vision of the Virgin Mary who reminds him of his vows and his marriage and gives him an ultimatum if he wants to live. Thus, he must give up his adulterous relationship with Becky and sell his bar.
Meanwhile, Becky, convinced she can use the waxwork of Rebecca Nurse to conduct her own tours on the background of the real Salem witch trials freely goes off the museum’s canned script. She informs an interested group that The Crucible, Miller’s play is filled with inaccuracies. For example Abigail’s age in reality was 11 years old, but Miller, who fantasized about sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, made her older and lusting after John Proctor to satisfy his own fantasies about the celebrity. Becky insists that rather than it be a play about John Proctor’s “virtue” what really happened was 14 women were hanged, something that Miller didn’t portray accurately, nor did he care about. In one of the funniest lines in the play Becky says, “…our country’s whole understanding of the Salem witch trials is based on the feeling–of I want to fuck Marilyn Monroe, but I can’t fuck her.”
At that juncture, an officer interrupts her tour and arrests her because she has been charged with theft. She was caught on tape stealing the lifelike wax figure from the Museum of Witchcraft in order to fulfill the last part of her spell to achieve wholeness and to earn some money in her newly self-created job. But at the point of the arrest, there is a pivot in time magically. The setting regresses to 1692. A crowd (all who judge her in the present-Bob, Witch, Shelby, Gail, Stan) dressed in pilgrim outfits scream, “Lock her up!” Because she dares to question why she is being arrested, she transgresses the laws, an insult to the officer. Act I ends in the throes of her panic and fear as the crowd in pilgrim garb demands, “Lock her up. Kill the witch. Lock her up.”
As the complications arise and boil over by the end of Act I, we have watched the character of Becky become unraveled as she takes more pain pills and makes untenable decisions. Though she is obsessed with wanting to change her life, she has neither the means, the nature, nor the sobriety to find a path which will lead her to success. Everyone except the Witch has turned against her. They can offer no route out of the morass she’s built for herself in her Salem life. And to make matters worse, while she is in jail, Shelby ends up taking care of Gail and applying for custody of her granddaughter. It is both an emotional and psychic blow as Shelby now has the upper hand over every aspect of her life.
How Taichman and Ruhl bring Becky to her knees leading to the court trial where she raises herself up to admit responsibility and become accountable for her own actions is the crux of Act II. Vitally, Ruhl brings together thematic elements from 1692 with the present to magnify the issues Ruhl introduced in the beginning. Ruhl intimates that the threads of Becky’s self-destruction are rooted in paternalistic folkways which encourage women to accept victimization and passivity rather than to struggle and fight to empower themselves. Indeed, as Ruhl points out the through line from the 1700s puritanism to the present, such behaviors are culturally learned, generational patterns that are difficult to extricate oneself from. Even Shelby spouts the rhetoric that is most current as a “liberal” but is a hypocrite, incapable of employing the substance of what progressiveness is, women helping women. Instead, Shelby competes and follows what is most damaging to the town, its legacy and future. Her taking in Gail on the surface appears kind but is questionable.
Taichman’s and Ruhl’s vision combines the best of humor, drama and profoundly current concepts. To do this she relies on a superb ensemble with O’Connell, White and Buckley as standouts.
Kudos to the creative team who conveys the settings and provides the chills that leak from the past to the present and back again. Particularly effective are the projections of the black birds symbolizing the occult and perhaps evil spirits at salient points in the play. These are effective thanks to Barbara Samuels lighting and Tal Yarden’s projections. The sets are effectively fluid and mimalistic thanks to Riccardo Hernandez. The costumes designed by Emily Rebholz are eerie enough to remind us of the fearful pilgrims.The waxwork of Rebecca Nurse is sufficiently life-like to imagine her presence being enlivened for a twinkling moment, then vanishing as all things magical are wont to do.
Because of Taichman’s direction, the production translates into masterful performances with high energy, LOL humor and current themes without relying on rhetoric or cant. This is not easy. Taichman, Ruhl, the actors and creative team make this comedic play a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/becky-nurse-salem/
‘Corsicana,’ Will Arbery Tackles a Kinder, Gentler Texas
Will Arbery’s Corsicana directed by Sam Gold in its world premiere is more an evocation and memorial to these representative characters of the heart’s universal weirdness, who try to find comfort and make their own space in the world. Unfettered with glamor and starlight, Arbery’s portrait of humanity in all its endearing strangeness is one we can easily identify with.
The play’s progression moves slowly by degrees of the stage turn table fitted with two couches. This revolves when the time/space continuum shifts and scenes change. The large couches and a small table and chairs downstage are the only furniture in a white-walled warehouse of a structure that represents the house where the two siblings Ginny (Jamie Brewer) and Christopher (Will Dagger) live and where neighbor and friend Justice (Deirdre O’Connell) visits. With a plexiglass framed roof that the characters slide forward, Lot’s (Harold Surratt) barn emerges as the lights upstage dim and the characters step downstage in the light, signifying Lot’s property when they visit him.
The actors do a phenomenal job revealing the inner and outer emotional filaments, quirkiness and complications their characters experience during their interactions with one another. Arbery’s central focus of Corsicana, finely directed by Gold, is on Christopher and Ginny, aged one year apart. They have recently lost their mother. Feeling adrift in their mourning, they awkwardly reposition their identities and relationship with each other, haphazardly shuffling toward a new respect, love and understanding without their mother’s buffer of love.
Will Dagger’s Christopher is humorously chided by his sister Ginny (Brewer) a smart, sharp-witted thirty-four year old woman with Down Syndrome, as they sit and plan the rest of their lives turning over Christopher’s initial question about Ginny’s unsettled unease. As they discuss the state of themselves in their loss, we understand how much their mother meant to their sense of purpose and being. Living in the house she left them, they are in stasis, not engaging in their previous lives with work and friends. Ginny can’t find interest in taking up her hobbies, choir or her job. Mourning is a tricky business. When does one return to one’s life? Can one return? Should there be new engagement immediately afterward?
They are displaced in a limbo between losing an old life and negotiating a new one, their hearts glazed over in non-feeling.. It rather seems they are plopped down together for our own good pleasure to understand how siblings close in age in adulthood (Christopher is thirty-three) might get along, when one of them is not living in a group home, but is being “taken care of” by family and a close friend. However, when Ginny asks Christopher’s help in finding something for her to become engaged in, he understands that it must be something novel. All of her previous pursuits don’t satisfy. And she affirms that she is proud, so asking for his help is the last thing she wants to do, but desperately must do.
From their discussion and Ginny’s listing of wants and wishes, we discover that Ginny did many things with her mother. And when family friend of their mother. Justice (Deirdre O’Connell) drops over with groceries and a chat from time to time, we note that she is willing to stay with Ginny, baby-sit her, though Ginny bristles at the reference and loudly affirms she is an adult. Of course she is, but there are boundaries that she crosses unwittingly as we see with her attempt at friendship with Lot. Thus, clearly, Ginny relates differently, from a unique frame of reference, perspective and response to others that is uniquely her own.
Indeed, Jamie Brewer’s Ginny seems extremely adept and mature enough to take care of herself which is where her relationship with her brother may end up, in separate houses, lives, spaces. Steps must be taken, so of course, Christopher tries to help. The conflict of “how to help Ginny find something to do” blooms in full force when Christopher visits Lot, an artist that Justice recommends because she knows him and has even collected some of his work that might be exhibited, if the situation pans out. In the interim Lot works on a project he won’t let anyone see that thematically manifests as “a one-way street to God.” Clearly, he is secretive and religious and private, and shares those similarities with Ginny who believes in God and is so secretive she refuses to allow anyone into her room because she values her privacy.
In the hope that Lot might help Ginny express her musical talent and come out of her current doldrums with a sense of purpose and collaboration, Christopher visits the artist and after some humorous repartee which Arbery is a master of, Lot agrees, but she must come to his place. Lot’s demeanor is straightforward and no nonsense, revealing a brilliance and wisdom. Arbery also plants seeds of Lot’s story in his upset to hear that Ginny is “special needs.” He questions if Christopher thinks he is that way, too. His question is out of left field, but intimates the story which he unfolds in the conclusion of the play, a story whose revelation to Justice reveals he is ready to take their relationship into something more than friends.
Christopher’s cajoling and friendship with Justice (we never find the symbolism of her name, though she is the balancing force among the characters) peaks Lot’s kind approval. He refuses money, but would like a gift as payment, throwing in a philosophical comment about materialism and waste which he and Justice eschew. What the gift is remains a mystery, but as God bestows talents, Lot indicates an acceptable gift would be an expression of someone’s talent at the appropriate time. Turns out, he receives his gift at the play’s conclusion when all contribute their gifts in a song which, as it turns out, has been written by the characters responses, feelings and issues throughout the play. Indeed, the play is the theme song of their humanity that they sing at the end followed by audience applause.
Lot’s appreciation and closeness to Justice is revealed when she visits and they banter, again with Arbery’s talent for pointed, humorous dialogue whose sub rosa content shines through. She tells him “shut up,” and not stop her relating a fascinating, symbolic dream about a dead man who haunts her. And he tells her repeatedly she’s “weird.” But they are birds of a feather, though Lot is noncommittal at this point.
When Ginny visits, Lot attempts to find something interesting to sing about and collaborate on. As Lot tries we note his cleverness and creativity with an amusing story that includes dinosaur ghosts. However, though most “children” and individuals would be interested, Ginny isn’t. Eventually, she expresses her interest in pop music and singers who Lot is unfamiliar with. Their discussion comes upon a dead end until Ginny expresses something which is untoward to Lot and something which she doesn’t realize is a trigger for him. What she expresses upsets Lot who affirms he can’t work with her and who dismisses her. She is perplexed.
In the next segments of the Second Act the revelations of why Lot reacts as he does come to the fore. The unsettled issues of Ginny’s “untoward” response to Lot, her unwitting comments to him about Christopher, and Justice’s feelings about Lot are resolved in Arbery’s exotic dialogue that is out there and ethereal but grounded in undecipherable, spiritual human consciousness and experience. Christopher, Justice and Lot have exceptional monologues beautifully delivered by Will Dagger, Deirdre O’Connell and Harold Surratt. That the audience was breathless and silent and the annoying barking seal in front of me was mesmerized through all of them, indicates the depth of authenticity the actors effected to make such profound moments “take our breath away.”
Arbery’s Corsicana is not like his other plays. That is a good thing. It is humanity, unadorned, quixotic, exotic in its peculiarity with these amazing characters warmly, lovingly inhabited by the ensemble whose teamwork is right-on. Gold’s direction infuses the characterizations with haunting absences of time and space reflected in the set design (Laura Jellinek, Cate McCrea) and efficient, suggestive lighting design by Isabella Byrd. Sound (Justin Ellington) was at times in and out perhaps because of the acoustics in the theater or the actors not projecting when their backs were turned to the audience. Not every word was sounded in clarity, whether a fault of the hearer or the structure of the theater, projection or something else. However, the monologues, because of their importance, were bell clarity sensational. The repartee and quips sometimes were thrown away into deep space heard by elves.
Finally, a note about the music which was characteristic of the characters’ souls thanks to Joanna Sternberg and Ilene Reid music director. The song at the end, the gift that Lot receives, is endearing, humorous and fun. Sung in collaboration, the unity and community that the characters achieve is poignant. Of course that they all have faith in God, not a specific political faith. But spiritual understanding threads throughout the song, which is in sum, the play. That their type of deep spiritual faith is refreshing Arbery notes with complexity. That their faith is essential to how the moments that looked like they were going downward, instead reversed and moved to a contented and hopeful resolution, makes sense.
Corsicana is at Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street with one intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/corsicana/