Becky Nurse of Salem is a winner at Berkeley Rep.
BECKY NURSE OF SALEM: Drama by Sarah Ruhl. World Premiere. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Berkeley Rep., Peet’s Thestre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org. December 12-January 26, 2020.
Becky Nurse of Salem is a winner at Berkeley Rep. Rating:
Berkeley Rep’s love affair with “MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play); Eurydice; Dead Man’s Cell Phone and others)” is on display again with Becky Nurse of Salem receiving a spectacular production at their Peet’s Theatre. The play had its origin three years ago as a commission by Berkeley Rep’s The Ground Floor and was still being honed up to the world premiere opening on Thursday night December 19. There are a few caveats but the total package is truly a marvel with a deconstruction of popular history about the Salem Witch trials with contemporary themes and also with a modern witch thrown in..
In Ruhl’s play the contemporary issues arrive early during the post Obama era where the Trump election ploy was to paint Hilary Clinton with false attributes leading to the infamous, “Lock her up!” Ruhl suggests that this modern event equates with the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch trials where the cry was “Hang them!” The “them” were those falsely accused and hanged ironically in the location that is now a Dunkin’ Donuts or is it the Holiday Inn? “Before there was this Dunkin’ Donuts, they killed women they called witches here. Before that, they killed Indians. Before that, they had Thanksgiving.”
Sarah Ruhl’s play is loaded with cultural and political references dating back to 1672 the year of the hangings of the “Witches” up to the 2016 presidential election into the present day. She uses generalities and specifics of the mores that have transcended the ages. She also deconstructs Arthur Miller’s ubiquitous play The Crucible. This is where the plot begins.
Becky Nurse (Pamela Reed) is the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Rebecca Nurse who was one of the 14 women hanged. She is a guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft depicted by statues in Puritan clothing lining the raised platform at the rear of the stage plus a pair of witches riding a broom hung high on stage left. The High School students she is leading are not aware of Joseph McCarthy’s “witch-hunt” for communists nor of the errors in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” John Proctor the hero was actually 60 years old and Abigail Williams his supposed paramour was 11 and not 17. The F word is copiously used and Becky is fired.
The details of Becky’s chaotic life begin to unfold. She has an opiate addiction and the granddaughter Gail (Nalan Gonzalez Norvind) whom she is raising has been hospitalized for unnamed mental or medical illness. Becky is in need of a job to earn money but her abrasive personality and lack of education limit her possibilities. Her only true friend is Bob (Adrian Roberts) a former High School classmate who is married and owns a bar where she spends much of her time.
A job as desk clerk at the Marriot is advertised but when she arrives there the job has been taken by the teenager Stan (Owen Campbell) who was aided in getting the job by a modern day witch (Ruibo Qian) and gives Becky a card for referral. When the Witch and Becky meet money ($200) must change hands and Bob advances the sum and we learn that the affection they had for each other in High School persists on a sexual as well as social level. Later the Witch is able to give details (don’t ask) on how to turn Bob’s platonic relationship into a sexual one.
Becky starts her own historical tour of the facts of 1672 by stealing a manikin from the museum and is arrested. While she is in jail Bob is persuaded to sneak in narcotics but is caught and ends up locked up near her cell and they can communicate. At this time Ruhl introduces the local policeman (Rod Knapp) who is oddly listed as Shape Shifter.
Through a series of events Becky is brought to trial and unlike her distant relative Rebecca who remained silent at the trial, Becky avows to be very, very vocal and Pamela Reed adds to her tour de force performance.
The diminutive Pamela Reed gives a powerful performance as she invests the character of Becky with verisimilitude that is a combination of combativeness for those who challenge her and love for Gail and Bob and the truth of Salem Witch Trials. Her tiny frame belies the tremendous power she brings to her performance. Adrian Robert gives a multilayered patina to the role of Bob making his relationship with Becky feel very real. The remainder of the cast do yeoman work as sounding boards for Reed’s Becky. However Rod Gnapp’s part as ‘Shape Shifter’ is underwritten.
The production values match or exceed the high standards set by Berkeley Rep and Anne Kauffman’s direction earns accolade. All in all it is a must see production. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
CAST: Stan, Owen Campbell; Shape Shifter, Rod Gnapp; Gail, Naian Gonzalez Norvind; Witch, Ruibo Qian; Becky Nurse, Pamela Reed; Bob, Adrian Roberts; Shelby, Elissa Beth Stebbins.
CREATIVE TEAM: Scenic Design, Louisa Thompson; Costume Design, Meg Neville; Lighting Design, Russell H. Champa; Sound Design, MikaaI Sulaiman; Music, Daniel Kluger; Dramaturg, Madeleine Oldham; Casting; Amy Potozkin, Telsey + Company,William Cantler, Karyn Casl.
Kedar K. Adour, MD