The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Not the Worst Witch: ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ World Premiere at the Berkeley Rep

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“Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.”
– Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

I do have to wonder how much timing is a factor? It’s been less than a week since I saw Shotgun’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom – one of the best shows I’ve seen this year (albeit with flaws) – and several elements of that show still linger. Churchill’s play was an historical dramatization of the Witch Trials that occurred in England. It was unapologetically feminist and read as a partial response to that famous Arthur Miller play. Sarah Ruhl’s new play – which world-premiered last night at the Rep – is a contemporary play about the legacy the US’s own trials, and it doesn’t bother with the subtlety: it curses both Miller and his play by name. Many, many, many times over.

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Just because Becky (Pamela Reed) is good at her job doesn’t mean she likes it. Photo: Kevin Berne

I mentioned in my Vinegar Tom review that I performed in The Crucible a few years back. I also mentioned that the problematic legacy of the play is inescapable. Written during The Red Scare, it was the author’s screed against the myopic fear-mongering of the McCarthy era. The problem is that it is both narratively and historically reductive to women. The historical women are either omitted or reduced, and the narrative women are all shrill harpies, ice queens, or honey pots. It’s no wonder that when the notoriously misogynist Aaron Sorkin alluded to the play in his film Jessica’s Game, it’s callously described as “what happens when teenage girls decide to gossip”.

Ruhl’s problems with the play are clear. Unfortunately, her response is to create a play with problems of its own. Lots of them. For Becky Nurse, our Salem-born lead played by the wonderful Pamela Reed, the legacy of Salem is less a ghost haunting her and more a chip on her shoulder. Descended from Witch Trial victim Rebecca Nurse, she works as a docent at the incredibly gauche Salem museum. Her speeches to guests tend to deviate from the script give her own personal spin on the trials: she emphasizes the fact that 14 women died from the trials; that The Crucible is misogynist in its depictions; and that frequent use of the word ‘fuck’ is the only way she can make this point.

That last one gets her fired.

Trying to find a new job, she just misses out on a graveyard shift position at the Marriott. But the guy who gets it, goth boy Stan (Owen Campbell) suggests her troubles can be fixed with the help of a local Witch (Ruibo Qian). Add to all of this the unclear guardianship Becky has over her grand-daughter Gail (Naian González Norvind) and the torch Becky carries for married confidante/high school crush Bob (Adrian Roberts) and the loss of her job seems the least of her problems. Also, the 2016 election happens.

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The Witch (Ruibo Qian) says she can solve all of Becky’s (Pamela Reed) problems… for a price. Photo: Kevin Berne

I almost forgot about the election in the play because the play seems to forget it, too. There’s no build-up to it beforehand (nor anything else signifying 2016) and it’s all but forgotten afterward, save for an arrest made during a post-election Women’s March. The election and its aftermath (and even #MeToo and Weinstein) could have been perfect contemporary parallels with the historical misogyny of the Salem Witch Trials, but Ruhl doesn’t seem all interested in that. She doesn’t mention the election as a way of tying it in to Becky (who says she didn’t vote) or her family’s legacy, Ruhl just mentions them as afterthoughts – as if they’re additions she handwrote into the script a week before opening.

Even the themes she does regularly touch upon seem like late additions to her thin, nearly-three-hour plot. There’s an interesting idea about the legacy of Salem luring in those who fetishize death, and then the real spectre of death manifests itself in the form of a local drug epidemic (which claims the life of Becky’s daughter Amy). But again, it’s mentioned then brushed aside, only briefly mentioned again if the plot calls for it.

Add to that the fact that none of these characters are real people, nor do any of their actions have any real weight. Bob is a pushover, giving Becky hundreds of dollars from register of his own bar with little resistance. Becky uses this money to pay for the services of the Witch, whose defining characteristic is that she’s actually a witch. That’s it. Ruibo Qian seems a capable performer, but she’s stuck with a character who’s only defined by the fact she’s a legit medium who can cast spells. She’s basically Gwyneth Paltrow, but her Goop actually works.

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Gail (Naian González Norvind) is remains the most important person in Becky’s (Pamela Reed) life. Photo: Kevin Berne

Becky’s boss, Shelby – played by the always-reliable Elissa Beth Stebbins – starts off the play as a heartless ice queen, only to become semi-heroic in the latter-half. (Disclosure: Stebbins and I both understudied the Rep’s White Noise earlier this year.) And Gail & Stan are typical angsty teens. That Ruhl limits most of their on-stage time to expedited scenelettes doesn’t help their lack of development. Not even for Becky, who remains onstage throughout the entire show.

Yet, the script isn’t a total wash. What Ruhl lacks in an appealing story she attempts to make up for in funny dialogue. Amongst my favorite bon mots were 14-year-old Gail explaining that she doesn’t like most childhood activities because “I don’t like cheerful adolescents.” When Gail goes through her first-ever break-up, Becky attempts to cheer her up by explaining, “The first man isn’t usually the right man – it’s like a pancake.” Even Becky’s screed against Arthur Miller stopped the audience cold with one line: “The Crucible is the story of one virtuous man, but Salem is the story of fourteen dead women.” The jigsaw pieces of a great script are there, but Ruhl can’t seem to fix the puzzle.

Fortunately, director Anne Kauffman makes ample use of all the technical resources at her disposal (despite a couple of opening night SNAFUs). Louisa Thompson’s museum set is an eye-catching red brick New Englad holdover, with the far-left and -right showing slivers of showing the outdoor street signs. It was halfway through Act I when I noticed that the upstage wall had bricks constructed to form the word “WITCH”, something later made clear with Russell Champa’s lights. The set begins the show peopled with various Salem mannequins adorned in pilgrim attire (two of them are actually riding a broom). These mannequins vanish from the stage as the show goes on. The first thing we hear is melodramatic music (courtesy of Daniel Kluger) accompanied by equally melodramatic readings of trial transcripts. As the start of the play neared, Mikaal Sulaiman’s soundscape amplified the music and speech to intentionally unbearable levels as a layer of mist filled the theatre. Not the sort of opening one would expect from a comedy, but atmospheric, nonetheless.

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Becky (Pamela Reed, forward), finally has the chance to be heard. (BG clockwise: Adrian Roberts, Ruibo Qian, Owen Campbell, Elissa Beth Stebbins) Photo: Kevin Berne

As a script, Becky Nurse of Salem is story with an idea of a destination, but no map to steer it there. It ebbs and flows and crashes against rocks, eventually landing at a spot not that much different from its starting point. The people we meet on this trip are pleasant enough, but one can’t help but wonder why this trip was taken in the first place.

It’s nice to see a world premiere from one of American theatre’s authorial stars. Unfortunately, this one isn’t her brightest accomplishment. Especially not when a more effective alternative is the just one BART stop away.

GRADE:                                                            C-

Becky Nurse of Salem’s world premiere run is scheduled to continue until the 26th of January 2020 in the Peet’s Theatre of the Berkeley Rep.
The show runs roughly 2 hours and 45 min. with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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