Review: Poetic justice abounds in brilliant ‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ at Berkeley Rep

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Pamela Reed as the title character in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Becky Nurse of Salem,” running through Jan. 26th. (Kevin Berne photo)

Anyone who has analyzed the amazing, powerful and critical piece of theatre known as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” can articulate what it’s truly about.

You have John Proctor, a man full of virtue who had a “slight” transgression with a teenage girl, an evil wench who has now fallen in love with him. Abigail Adams, a girl who can’t just move on from poor John, is now driven to destroy Proctor’s wife Elizabeth and everyone in her sick path. She becomes powerful and so, so evil. She drinks a potion that will hopefully kill Elizabeth, rats out those who have ever crossed her, and wreaks havoc on the puritanical town of Salem.

But poor, pious John. He is a man of simple means, who made one mistake with that vicious, awful temptress, and by the end of the play, his refusal to lie allows his name to stay clean for all eternity.

The reasons for Miller’s writing of this watershed play, penned in 1953 as an allegorical reference to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hyper-driven quest to root out communism in the United States, were clear.

Or also, just maybe he wrote it as an allegory for his own guilt because of his sexual desires towards Marilyn Monroe? That seems to be the belief from Miller’s daughter Judith’s research, which provided insight into Sarah Ruhl’s newest piece, referenced in the show’s playbill.

The brilliance of Ruhl’s fantastic play “Becky Nurse of Salem” is in how it shapes an incredible work of the world theatre and fuses past injustices and current devastation together. More than that, it ties a critical narrative of a family in crisis through the family of one of the most pragmatic of Salem’s residents in “The Crucible.” On a dashing set design from Louisa Thompson beautifully lit from lighting designer Russell H. Champa, director Anne Kauffman sweeps the show strikingly through space, weaving all the various components of the play, its present and past, with sharpness.

Rebecca Nurse is the most seasoned of mothers, and as one of Salem’s older residents, has seen and experienced plenty in her time on earth. Her calming attitude in the storm of chaos, driven by the fear of witches in this puritanical society, leads to her frigid eye-rolling when the jibber-jabber of witchcraft cascades down onto Salem’s residents.

Her descendant Becky (a brilliant, wide-ranging performance from Pamela Reed) does not function on a level of calm the way Rebecca did. She is older, deeply entrenched in her career as being Rebecca Nurse’s kin, a woman who was hanged with four other women at Gallows Hill in 1692. For 15 months beginning in February of 1692, more than 200 were accused of witchcraft, 14 women and five men were found guilty and hanged while one other was tortured to death after refusing to enter a plea.

Becky is feisty, fighting with her boss in the museum where she works after a particularly blunt assessment of John Proctor to a bunch of school kids on a trip, defiantly taking the mannequin of Rebecca with her as she’s shoved out the door. Even though hundreds of years have passed since the ugliness of the Salem Witch Trials concluded, the ghost of Rebecca and the others who fell beside her are very present in Becky’s life. She struggles with a relationship with the gentle and handsome Bob (Bay Area stalwart Adrian Roberts) and fights hard to try and raise her granddaughter Gail (a fierce Naian González Norvind), a girl who lost her mother to the opioid crisis.

The pain of Becky losing her daughter is leading to her own struggles in life, and opioids provide her respite. But for Gail, seeing her grandmother struggle with substances is an ugly reminder.

Each issue in Ruhl’s play are given the dynamics and exposition needed to make them critically important. The absurdity of living in a world where a president chooses to ignore participation in a congressional inquiry yet claims to be the victim of a witch hunt would be laughable if it wasn’t so ridiculous and cruel. Ruhl has hammered home a few different viewpoints here and is able to weave a humor and drama filled narrative, whisking the impeccably paced play to its conclusion.

At the end of the day, the piece’s poetic justice is at the forefront. The issue of “The Crucible” as constructed by Miller is not really the fact that in real life, Proctor was 60, Abigail was 11 and they never met. Miller’s play, even though it’s rooted in history, and as powerful and timely as it’s always been, is as fictional as any other dramatic work.

The issue has more to do with the problematic nature of placing a woman in a society where she has zero agency, faces sure death and criticizes the way she survives. All the men rule the land, all the women die, yet Proctor and his virtue come out unscathed.

As dramatized by Miller, Rebecca Nurse didn’t take any of the nonsense that the patriarchy was dishing out. Her voice was strong, her experience provided a moral compass for the hysteria that surrounded her and her fellow citizens.

It’s almost as if Ruhl is one of Rebecca’s descendants as well.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Becky Nurse of Salem”
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Anne Kauffman
The Word: A play that seamlessly weaves critical issues through one of the great, problematic plays in the American theatre.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Through Jan. 26th
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

 

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