“Before there was this Dunkin’ Donuts, they killed women here they called witches. Before that, they killed Indians. Before that, they had Thanksgiving.”
Standing in front of her shopping cart with a mannequin of her great, great, great, great grandmother that she has stolen from the Salem Witches Museum, Becky Nurse gives her first tour at $20 an hour, telling her version of the famed and notorious events of 1692-93 that led to her ancestor, Rebecca Nurse, and so many other also-guiltless women being wrongly accused and hanged. Becky is on the street now with her own tour business because her enhanced, personal versions of this history often led her off script when she was an official museum guide – something the new director, Shelby, did not find acceptable (along with the occasional F-word that nuns did not appreciate their high school girls hearing on Becky’s high-energy tours).
The seventeenth-century epidemic of witch trials on both sides of the Atlantic have been the subject ever since of much intrigue, research, and tourist curiosity. The trials and their consequences have also been the subject of plays such as Arthur Miller’s much-celebrated 1953 allegory of McCarthyism, The Crucible, and Carol Churchill’s 1976 Vinegar Tom, the latter now playing at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players and asserting that the power dynamics of male dominance over women is a key reason for the abhorrent events. Tony nominee and MacArthur “Genius” Awardee Sarah Ruhl now adds her voice to an examination of that history, its lingering legacy, and its unsettling relevance to our current times in a new outrageously funny, historically enlightening, and totally entertaining dark comedy entitled Becky Nurse of Salem – now receiving its commissioned world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a stunningly impressive production that already has “New York” and beyond stamped all over it.
Becky’s firing from the museum after twenty years by that new uppity, high-and-mighty Shelby is just one of her current worries and woes. Her fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Gail, suffers depression and has been in her care ever since Becky’s daughter died of opioid overdose. Gail requires medications; Becky needs money now; but the one job Becky sees in the paper that meets her qualifications (night clerk at the local Marriot) has already been taken by a seventeen-year-old guy with tattoos and black-painted fingernails. To her horror, he is also now the much-younger Gail’s new boyfriend that she met during her most recent stay at a mental hospital (meaning he, too, is fighting depression). To top it off, chants of “Lock her up” scream from the television as Trump beats Clinton, spurring angry women in pink, yarn-laced hats across the nation into the streets. Becky’s only solace is her long-time friend from school, Bob, a local pub owner whom she has secretly loved forever and who is quick to bring a beer and a listening ear to her aid.
The one saving grace about Gail’s new BF is that he has given Becky the contact information for a person who might be her answer how to find a new job, obtain revenge on Shelby, entice Bob to love her, and while she is at it, get rid of Stan himself as the new and too-old and creepy boyfriend. Becky shows up at the office of the local Salem Witch with a long list of wishes, ready to do whatever it takes and to borrow the bucks from generous Bob to pay the Witch for the crystals to lure him to love her, the spray to harm Shelby, and the charm to place in Stan’s backpack to drive him out of Gail’s life once and for all.
But as we and Becky soon see, once the powers of witchery are let loose, a lot can happen that is both wanted and not wanted. The twists and turns, ups and downs, and surprises galore that ensue turn out to be a lot more than Becky and everyone around her – including the Witch herself – ever bargained for. And along the way, visions of her own history with one who was accused as a witch begin to visit and haunt her, with questions arising if anything really has changed that much for women in Becky’s Salem since those days more than three hundred years earlier.
Veteran theatre, film, and television actor Pamela Reed is no less than – I have to say it; I can’t help myself – bewitchingly sensational as Becky Nurse. First, she is given a script by Sarah Ruhl that snaps and ripples in the wonderfully sardonic remarks that Becky continuously makes due to her perceived lack of luck in life and love. Her Becky more often snarls than smiles and can insult her target with a natural, matter-of-fact air that zings like an arrow. But while she can explode into an eruption of expletives, she can also just as easily collapse into a teddy bear mode when her almost-grown granddaughter sits on her lap like a little kid or melt into a love-sick girl herself when Bob gives her one of his big smiles or hugs. She is hilarious when her Becky has an epiphany involving melting butter while sitting on the toilet in a jail cell (wait until you see how she gets there) and is terrifying and terrified when the red eyes of accusing witch-hunters of her ancestry flash their ire directly on her. Throughout, we in the audience can hardly take our eyes off Pamela Reed’s Becky, never knowing what will be the next unlikely thing to pop out of her mouth or the next unpredictable decision she will make as Becky tries to gain some control by whatever means she can of her world that is going all amok.
But Pamela Reed and her Becky do not act alone to make the Berkeley Rep production a “must-see” for Bay Area audiences. Adrian Roberts is immediately likable and compelling as the soft-hearted, soft-spoken bartender, Bob, who shuns sportscasts in his bar in favor of his favorite PBS, who decorates his ceiling light with green plants, and who might have married Becky long ago if she had not thrown pebbles at him when he did not dance with her at a high school prom. As Gail, Naian González Norvind exudes confidence, brashness, and insights that belie her fourteen-year-old self but also exposes the vulnerability and insecurity of a young girl for whom life has already dealt many bad hands. Owen Chapman is the somewhat cocky, predictably horny, but also surprisingly mature boyfriend, Stan, who is ready one moment to rescue Gail from her crazy grandma and is willing the next to be sure Becky does not lose Gail forever.
Ruibo Qian is the modern Witch who practices her trade with twinkling all-knowingness, compassionate calming, and yet practical entrepreneurship. Her posture, voice, and expression speak in ways to show she knows her power but will never be one to brag or misuse what she naturally knows through her “third eye” into the world around her.
Also strong in her sense of who she is, Shelby is a museum director with a clear mission to educate young girls to be tomorrow’s strong women. While she comes across as initially cold when it comes to Becky, Elissa Beth Stebbins transforms her Shelby in ways that even Becky comes to see as genuine as the legacy of Becky’s ancestry has its effects on her Shelby.
Rounding out the cast is a local favorite, a versatile and talented Rod Gnapp. He takes turns in roles ranging from a friendly but forceful local police officer to a patient judge who is moved only so much by the tales of how her ancestry explains Becky’s multiple run-ins with the law.
Besides this fine cast and the surprise-a-minute, often tongue-in-cheek direction by Anne Kauffman (who has ensured all in the cast have a wonderful, Massachusetts accent), another star is in this production is the entire creative team, led first and foremost by the show-dominating scenic design of Louisa Thompson. Even before the first words are spoken and audience is shuffling in, a museum’s mannequins of Salem’s witch trial years lord over the scene – life-size figures that are dressed in Meg Neville’s period costumes and that star in their own scenes between those on the main stage below them. From these past, Pilgrim-dressed citizens of Salem emits eerie whispers of gossip and accusation as part of Mikaal Sulaiman’s much-enhancing sound design – one that includes eerie meows of cats, low chimes of ancient church bells, and interludes of attention-grabbing jazz and pop music (music by Daniel Kluger). Russell H. Champa’s lighting design adds its own magical touches to summon spirits of the past and drug-induced visions of the present as well as to highlight in bold red letters that the lasting legacy and effect of witches are still very much present all around in modern Salem.
In response to the patriarchal, male-as-hero stories and histories that have ever since been the common thread of those witch trial years of both Salem and all throughout Europe, Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem provides a female-oriented view of both those times and of the lasting effects on one family and community, doing so in ways a bit naughty, a lot funny, and altogether engaging and entertaining. She, Director Anne Kauffman, and this Berkeley Repertory Theatre cast and team bring a year-end world premiere that should definitely have long legs for many more staged outings in the new year and beyond.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Becky Nurse of Salem continues through January 26, 2019 in world premiere production on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company