At the back of the Becky Nurse of Salem stage, the word “witch” is outlined in the grout of a brick wall. When the lights grow dim, WITCH glows fire-engine red in giant capital letters. The drama may take place in present-day Salem, Massachusetts but Sarah Ruhl’s play is unmistakably set in Trump’s America. When the playwright scatters audio excerpts throughout the dialogue, my ears perked up when I heard, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” The inclusion of that disturbing chant confirmed the fact that this story wouldn’t exist if Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016. Ruhl is unearthing the past to examine, and make sense of what went wrong.
The play begins, symbolically enough, in a history museum. Creepy mannequins dressed in 17th century pilgrims’ garb are lined up along a moving conveyor belt in the background. Two women are riding sidesaddle on a broom that’s hanging above everyone on a wire. With their half-melted, waxen faces, they evoke the promise of a perpetual Halloween with all of its attendant sense of unease. I kept waiting for the figures to spring to life or fly away. From the title to the scenic design, Becky Nurse of Salem recreates the atmosphere, and the inherited mythology, that’s come to define the Salem witch hunts. But Ruhl is equally intent on debunking what’s untrue about those stories.
Her point of departure is to respond to and rebut Arthur Miller’s take on Salem in his 1953 play The Crucible. Becky Nurse (Pamela Reed) is a lifelong Salem native and museum tour guide with an ancestor who was tried and killed as a witch. In her opening monologue addressed to museumgoers (and by proxy the theater audience), she tells us her version of the unvarnished truth. Becky says that when Arthur Miller wrote his play he wanted to fuck Marilyn Monroe. He reshaped the actual story by putting a sympathetic male at its center instead of focusing on the women accused of being witches. But Becky’s coarse language offends the visitors and her boss Shelby (Elissa Beth Stebbins) fires her.
Because the plot is strictly bound by Murphy’s Law, that’s just the first thing that goes wrong for her. Every unhappy accident from the past catches up with her. She hangs out with Bob (Adrian Roberts), the man she’s been in love with since high school, and her only friend. He married another woman but the two of them still have lunchtime chats in the bar he owns. Becky lives with Gail (Naian González Norvind), the troubled teenage granddaughter she’s raising. Becky’s daughter by her abusive ex-husband, and Gail’s mother, died of a drug addiction years earlier. Losing her daughter has been Becky’s greatest affliction. It has paralyzed her with a mess of contradictory emotions. She doesn’t trust herself, let alone anyone else.
When she applies for a job that’s already been filled, someone refers her to a neighborhood witch (Ruibo Qian). Becky is skeptical but desperate enough to give witchcraft a try. The witch gives her crystals and spells and potions that begin to change her luck — at first. But we soon learn that Becky also has an opioid addiction. It fuels the breakdown that’s barreling down the highway to meet her.
Her Salem lineage is the only thing she takes pride in so Becky decides to start a tour company of her own. And then she quickly gets arrested for not having a permit to do so. While she’s in jail, Becky starts to withdraw from the opioids and suffers from a series of hallucinations that send her back in time. In these fantasies, she becomes her martyred 17th century ancestor Rebecca Nurse.
Becky’s trips back in time are only happening in her hallucinating mind. She hasn’t left her jail cell or the aftermath of the 2016 election. Ruhl wakes Miller’s play up by reshaping it with a damaged, yet sympathetic woman as the protagonist. At the end of the play, it becomes clear that Ruhl’s equating the vilification of Hillary Clinton with the witch hunts that destroyed the lives of so many women in Salem.
But the specificity of Reed’s performance tempers the playwright’s political messaging. The actress is compelling when the character is unsteady or sad but stunning when Becky is furious with the patriarchy that’s battered her — and women like her — around. We know exactly what national tragedy she’s referring to when Reed exclaims, “I’m sorry for what they did to you.”
Becky Nurse of Salem, through Jan. 26 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $58-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org