You can’t get more American than descending from one of the witches burned in Salem, Mass. Unless, that is, you happen to be an opioid addict in the same town during the Trump years, raising your teenage granddaughter, who is currently confined to a mental hospital in part because she saw her mother (your daughter) die of an overdose at the local Walgreens.
Sarah Ruhl, in her new play “Becky Nurse of Salem,” now playing at Lincoln Center Theater, makes a distinction between those who understand the reality of oppression in America because they’ve lived there (see Hillary Clinton) and those who insist on alternatives for their own benefit. Stories of oppression for: sex (Arthur Miller), money, fame, power (Trump) — and denial (Becky Nurse).
In the first act, Becky (Deirdre O’Connell), a loud, unlikable 62-year-old local, is fired from her job as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft for dropping an f-bomb off script. In front of some nuns. The museum is run by a tall, blonde, polished PhD (Tina Benko) with no connection to Salem’s history, and Becky doesn’t like the story that this “dog” was burned to death. It doesn’t help that Becky has a daily liquid lunch at a local bar owned by Bob (Bernard White), the guy she’s had a crush on since high school.
So unable to find any other available work and unable to pay her bills, Becky enlists a local “witch” (Candy Buckley, looking like she stepped out of a 1980s Tribeca dinner party) to help her get what she needs through drugs. appointed for , spells, and magic stones, although Becky doesn’t really believe in witchcraft – or much of it. But the witch’s cures (and all the secret and sometimes illegal things Becky has to do to implement them) work and Becky gets what she wants (including Bob).
The luck doesn’t last long though, as Becky ends up in jail, without drugs, going through withdrawals. The second act is about his hallucinations, most of which are falsely accused and taunted, straight out of “The Crucible” through pantomimes choreographed by most of the rest of the cast in frumpy pilgrim costumes.
The Trump years in this country were filled with over-emotion, lies and general mayhem, and people got caught. Among those people might have been MacArthur Fellow Ruhl, who took a good idea — the story of an ordinary American woman obsessed with the truth about the Salem witch trials in a post-#MeToo era — and buried it with muddled thoughts, confusing allusions to current events, mysteriously silly. The theatrics, and mostly push the performance through director Rebecca Taichman. O’Connell, who won a Tony this year for her performance in “Dana H,” goes for the laughs and gets them, but never dials it up to make room for her character’s nuances.
It’s a big swing that Ruhl takes, trying to include the whole world in one woman’s story, and you have to admire her for that. But it’s a big miss. If he had spent more time developing his characters and their relationships with each other so that we could actually care about them, the drama could have worked. As it stands, “Becky Nurse of Salem” is promising at the beginning, but disappointing after that, when the audience is bombarded with the kind of disorienting sounds inspired by those terrible years.