Review: BECKY NURSE OF SALEM At Trinity Repertory Company

A crowd-pleasing comedy of redemption carried by its cast.

By: Oct. 02, 2023
Review: BECKY NURSE OF SALEM At Trinity Repertory Company
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Becky Nurse (Angela Brazil) is as local as local can get in Salem. Not only can she trace her ancestry all the way back to Rebecca Nurse, a victim of the Salem witch trials, but she embodies—thanks to an incredible physical performance by Brazil—the abrasive energy associated with Massachusetts. Her relation to her hometown and its history is, to say the least, complicated. In fact, all of Becky’s relationships are complicated.

First, there is the issue of the outsiders who have the gall to pretend that they know better than her how and where the witch trials happened, and what to make of them. Shelby (Rachel Dulude), the new director of the history museum where Becky has been giving tours for decades, is the most obvious of these offenders, instructing Becky to stick to a script complemented by cheesy recordings delivered by the museum’s wax mannequins. Becky, however, does not do well with scripts. After a couple of tours peppered with profanity garner complaints from visiting school groups, Becky loses her job.

One problem compounds another: Becky needs a salary and health insurance to take care of Gail (Jihan Haddad), her orphaned granddaughter who struggles with depression. This relationship is rocky too, despite the deep love between the two. Gail is a teenager, and Becky’s insecurities often lead her to act like one, straining the communication between them.

And then there is Becky’s relationship with Bob (Dereks Thomas), her high-school crush turned lifelong friend and confidante. Their easy-going conversations at Bob’s bar seem first a shelter from the other hardships in Becky’s life—but is that enough for her? Wouldn’t Becky be happier in a romantic relationship with him?

This question, together with a series of magical answers to all of her problems, is offered to Becky by the witch she consults to remedy her unemployment (Meg Thalken). And Becky, at her wits’ end, decides to explore her supernatural options in a quest that will force her to confront painful past mistakes.

Three people embrace in a group hug, from left to right a woman, a teenager, and a man
Becky (Angela Brazil) and Bob (Dereks Thomas) comfort Gail (Jihan Haddad). Photo: Mark Turek

The weight of history, the social injustices of the present, and a harsh life’s heartbreaks collide in Becky Nurse of Salem, and the play sometimes buckles under the strain of handling such weighty matters with the vivacity of a comedy unafraid of slapstick. This is no fault of the cast: the actors, starting with Brazil, deliver their lines with near-perfect timing and pitch, keeping the audience laughing straight through the performance yet revealing their character’s hidden tenderness when it matters. Thomas, as Bob, does in particular do a fine job of marrying his character’s goofiness with a moving soft-heartedness.

The script, however, occasionally struggles to maintain such a fine balance. In the image of its titular character, it sometimes “shoots itself in the foot”—a reproach twice levied at Becky. It is for instance curious to see how much the arcs of the main female characters rely on their relations to exemplary men. The hint that “lady [health] business” would be sufficiently treated by herbal remedies is another misstep, suggests a dismissiveness of female pain that rings a jarring note for a play that, at other points, attends thoughtfully to the historical trauma of womanhood.

Such moments, when past tragedy and history in the making meet, can be breathtaking. Such is the case at the low point when Becky is arrested and led to jail among mixed yells of “lock her up” and “kill the witch,” a historical compression of the Salem witch trials and Trump-era presidential rallies that makes terrifying sense. The relative sparseness of the set designed by Michael McGarty works wonderfully with the dramatic lighting by Dawn Chiang to heighten the tension of these powerful moments. Other choices, such as the imbrication of Puritan-eras costumes and modern garb, suggest other metaphors for the ways the past can envelop us—and the ways we can decide to step out of it.

A woman kneels at the center of a starkly lit stage, with two people threatening her.
Past and present collide in some of the play's most dramatic scenes. Photo: Mark Turek

Funny and brash, Becky Nurse of Salem and its main character sometimes stumble, but finally offer a welcome corrective to the stories—Arthur Miller’s Crucible first among them—that have long made women the villains in the tales of their own persecutions. They do so with a sense of humor and a big heart that should recommend the play to audiences unafraid of the messiness of imperfect lives.

This production runs in rotating repertory with The Good John Proctor through November 10. Tickets are available online at trinityrep.com/becky or call the ticket office at (401) -351-4242.




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