BWW Review: BECKY NURSE OF SALEM at Berkeley Repertory
Magic abounds in Berkeley Reps World Premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Becky Nurse of Salem, figuratively in the story of a desperate woman relying on witchcraft to solve her many woes and literally in the bravura performance of Pamela Reed in the starring role and the delicious direction of Anne Kauffman and support of her technical crew. MacArthur "Genius" Grant winner Ruhl's smart script links the witch hunts of Salem to the #metoo, "Lock her up" misogyny of Trumpist rhetoric in the 2016 election in a wickedly dark comedy with sinister socio-political and economic implications.
Things aren't going well for Becky Nurse, descendant of Rebecca Nurse, executed for witchcraft in 1692. She's fired from her longtime job as tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft for her colorful off-script diatribes, is struggling to raise her troubled granddaughter Gail (Naian Gonzalez Norvino) and wouldn't mind hooking up with her old flame Bob (Adrian Roberts). Her visit to a local witch for assistance initially yields success, but that's just the first act.
Pamela Reed drives the productions with her flawless performance of a woman beaten down by circumstances; her daughters drug overdose has left her bitter and angry. The revisionist history perpetuated by the museum and her uptight boss Shelby (Elissa Beth Stebbins) drives her to distraction. Every historic landmark is now a cheesy franchise and Becky knows best the real story behind Arthur Miller's The Crucible; its' all about old men wanting to fornicate little girls.
The witch (Ruibo Qian) is part huckster, part seer, fleecing Becky for cash while enticing her with results. Becky get her man, chases away Gail's loser boyfriend Stan (Owen Campbell), and inflicts revenge on her boss. But every action has its consequences; Gail gets more depressed and moves in with Stan, Bob has a heart attack and goes back to his wife Sharon and Becky gets put in jail for breaking and entry and stealing the wax figure of Rebecca Nurse.
The second act unites past with present in a dramatic witch trial to illustrate the truth of those heinous acts perpetrated against mostly women. It wasn't about magic or supernatural powers but control and male dominance. Not much has changed since the 17th century and Ruhl drives home this point in a rich, complex work driven by Reed's gritty, uncompromising performance.
Kauffman's direction is superb, the scene changes seamless and the staging has a surrealistic feel emphasized by the Russel H. Champa's haunting lighting and Louisa Thompson's set design. The was figures of the museum come to life and the horrors of the past can be seen as harbinger of what may return if we aren't vigilant against hatred, bigotry and intolerance. Becky Nurse of Salem has plenty to say, plenty to see and one of the finest acting performances if the year.
Becky Nurse of Salem continues through January 16, 2020 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2021 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets available at www.berkeleyrep.org or by calling 510-647-2929.
Photos by Kevin Berne.