The first time Bernard White entered the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where he is now playing a bar owner called Bob in Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem, was to see a production of Ruhl’s The Clean House. “I can’t believe it’s the same place,” White told me the other day, “because this theater can be so transformed from show to show.”

As the Newhouse has morphed so has White. “The first play I did here was Blood and Gifts” – J.T. Rogers’ terrific story about American involvement in Afghanistan. “I had just met my wife, and I could start to feel my life changing.” As for the play: “There were prop guns backstage and a sense of how harsh reality can be. I played a warlord. With Becky Nurse, by contrast, we are in a kind of dreamscape. And that’s mirrored in the physical production itself.”

How so?  “The bar I own is not rendered by a long counter but by a small, mobile set-up. It’s suggestive rather than hyper-realistic. On the bar sits a cash box, and I’ll tell you a secret about it. When I open it, I see a photo of my own mother when she was 23 years old. Even though she was a product of a very different world from that of the play” – the drama is set in 2016 and 2017 in Salem, Massachusetts – “seeing that photo helps me in some almost inexplicable way to create my character.”

The very different world White mentions is Sri Lanka, where he was born. (A veteran of many movies and TV series, White was only recently cast, for the first time, to play a Sri Lankan, in the anthology series Little America, now available on AppleTV.) He is one of seven children, and as a child he moved with his family to the United States. “I grew up in a small town in the Midwest,” White said, “a place where everybody knew everybody else. So I have an innate sense of what a town like Salem is like. And even though I’m now based in L.A., my neighborhood there – Los Feliz – also feels like a small town in some ways.”

White lives where his Bob character once dreamed of moving: California. “But he never made it out of Salem. He has a sense of dreams frustrated, and that’s one of the things that connects him to Becky, played by the brilliant Didi.” (Didi is the nickname for Deirdre O’Connell, who plays Becky Nurse.) White added: “In the whole of the play we only see Bob with Becky. Holding the space for Becky – that’s his essence.”

White worked once before with Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman, the director of Becky Nurse. It was in a 2017 production of The Clean House, at the Williamstown Theater Festival. “That was a much different experience than the current one,” White said. “You have two weeks to rehearse. So you come in knowing your lines and before you know it you’re before an audience.”

Becky Nurse had a longer gestation. “Things changed drastically from early rehearsal to tech,” White said. “But that was exciting. It was also free-ing, which is a word I tend to use about this whole experience. Doing the play every night is a free-ing ritual. Not only in terms of what we free ourselves from in the play – barriers to happiness – but in terms of what I’ve freed myself from in my own life and career. I used to concern myself with what people thought of what I did – reviews and things like that. Like most of us, I’ve been changed by the pandemic. I’m now more concerned with gratitude for being able to do the work.”

White closed our conversation by mentioning another ritual in which he’s involved. “For the past three years, I go to Griffith Park, in L.A., early on Sunday morning, and recite T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The work is 63 pages long, and it took me six months to memorize it. I use parts of it to warm up for Becky Nurse performances. But when this show is over I look forward to resuming the whole thing in California. It’s a spiritual practice. It would have to be,” White said lightly, “to get people up for a 6:30 a.m. start time.”

Brendan Lemon is the editor of