Becky Nurse of Salem: Do You Believe in Magic? (2024)

By Melissa Rose Bernardo

★★★★☆ Deirdre O’Connell plays a descendant of an accused Salem witch in Sarah Ruhl’s newest play

Becky Nurse of Salem: Do You Believe in Magic? (1)

If it’s been a while since you read The Crucible, you’ll get a fabulous refresher from playwright Sarah Ruhl in Becky Nurse of Salem.

“Little Betty is lying in kind of a coma. But she keeps heading to the window to fly out,” begins Becky (Dana H. Tony winner Deirdre O’Connell), who’s giving her, ahem, unvarnished take on the Arthur Miller classic to a group of high school students touring the Salem Museum of Witchcraft. Enter Abigail, a “beautiful dissembler,” which is code for an actress, Becky explains. “Betty says Abigail drank blood to kill John Proctor’s pregnant wife. Abigail says Shut it, Betty. We just danced naked in the forest and tried to talk to dead babies and that’s it.

“Now, in the play, the reason Abigail wanted to get revenge on John Proctor’s pregnant wife (this is what I could never really wrap my head around) is that this young girl wants to f*ck an old man,” Becky continues. “Anyway, in the play Abigail was 17 but in real life she was eleven. Fact. In the play he’s like: ‘You whor*! Stop tempting me.’ And I’m like, um, she’s eleven. More likely that John Proctor molested—sorry—courted—Abigail.” Those are just a few excerpts, but here’s a PG-rated logline that Becky breaks out after she gets fired from the museum: “The Crucible is the story of one virtuous man but in real life, Salem is the story of 14 dead women.”

[Read David Finkle’s ★★★☆☆ review here.]

Now at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse, Becky Nurse isn’t built on Miller’s drama, though setting the play in Salem does give Ruhl—the playwright behind such inventive works as The Clean House and In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play—the chance to cleverly respond to the 69-year-old piece. Set in 2016, it’s Ruhl’s rumination on witchcraft past and present, real and imagined. “Lock her up” chants are everywhere—in newspapers, in conservative strongholds all around the country, even blaring on the TV in the local bar where our hero, Becky, eats lunch and chats up the owner, her high school sweetheart, Bob (Bernard White). More than three centuries later, women are still trying to prove they aren’t witches! An Arizona news outlet described the 2016 Republican National Convention as a “weird Salem witch trial.” The headline: “Hillary is either a witch or Lucifer (or maybe both).”

Becky is most certainly not a witch. She’s just a Salem native who’s proudly but distantly related to Rebecca Nurse. (Rebecca was accused, convicted, and hanged—despite an original jury verdict of not guilty—and eventually exonerated because, yep, turns out she wasn’t a witch after all.) “I’m like her great, great, great, great, great something once removed,” Becky tells the museum visitors. “Lucille Ball’s related to her too. Fact. Mitt Romney too. Fact. Fun family reunions. Just kidding, I was never invited.” Unfortunately, our tour guide’s improvisations and colorful asides eventually get her canned by her new boss, Shelby (Tina Benko). “The board wants the museum to make money,” Becky sniffs. “Who ever heard of a frigging museum that turned a profit?”

And even though her family has a bad track record with the whole witch thing, Becky ends up seeking the help of a witch (Candy Buckley, fully embracing the character’s eccentricity). Wild gray hair, a cart full of crystals, sacks of herbs…she seems authentic, if you believe in that sort of thing. (Though the witch’s comical accent—think Julia Garner as con artist/faux German heiress Anna Delvey—belies her legitimacy.) Becky simply needs a job. She wants her troubled 15-year-old granddaughter, Gail (Alicia Crowder), to return from a short hospital stay. And while she doesn’t admit it at first, she wants Bob as well. Even though he’s married. Turns out Bob feels the same way: “I just want your body. Your smoking hot 62-year-old body. I want it, I want it, I think about you all the time.” Can you blame Becky for practically melting into a puddle right there?

This is only Act 1! Act 2 sucks Becky into a time warp where she replays Rebecca Nurse’s trial as she goes through opioid withdrawal (a pivotal plot point that feels somehow not entirely woven in). And this is all while she’s in jail. Under the direction of Rebecca Taichman—Ruhl’s collaborator on Stage Kiss, The Oldest Boy, and How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (the latter two at LCT)—O’Connell effortlessly navigates Becky’s highs and lows, not to mention forays into basic witchcraft. She is, in a word, spellbinding.

Becky Nurse of Salem opened Dec. 4, 2022, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and runs through Dec. 31. Tickets and information:

Becky Nurse of Salem: Do You Believe in Magic? (2)

About Melissa Rose Bernardo

Melissa Rose Bernardo has been covering theater for more than 20 years, reviewing for Entertainment Weekly and contributing to such outlets as, Playbill, and the gone (but not forgotten) InTheater and TheaterWeek magazines. She is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan. Twitter: @mrbplus. Email:

Becky Nurse of Salem: Do You Believe in Magic? (2024)
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