The Russian great Vladimir Nabokov once remarked, “Most works of literary merit are, consciously or not, responses to other works of literary merit.” In the case of Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s stimulating new play rehearsing for a run starting November 8th in the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the intent this time is most certainly conscious. Among many other fine things, the play is a dialogue with Arthur Miller’s classic 1953 drama, The Crucible. I asked Ruhl about this connection the other day.
She replied: “I wanted to write something about the 17th-century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, but every time I went that direction something told me to stay in my own era: that Arthur Miller had already written that historical masterpiece.” Ruhl can acknowledge the quality of Miller’s text even as one of her motivations for creating Becky Nurse of Salem was the irritation she felt after seeing a recent production of The Crucible.
“Everyone thinks of the play as a parable about McCarthyism,” Ruhl said, “but the heat and heart of the play is the lust that John Proctor has for Abigail Williams.” Ruhl continued: “But Miller also created an explanation for Salem that depended on a young girl who desired an older married man. That struck me as a massive falsification.”
The gifted playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkin set Ruhl’s own dramatic imagination further alight. He mentioned to her that, while writing The Crucible, Miller was married to his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, but struggling with his desire for the young Marilyn Monroe. “I didn’t know this at the time,” Ruhl said. She investigated the attraction further through Arthur Miller: Writer, the excellent documentary that Rebecca Miller, the writer’s daughter, made about her father, and by reading Arthur Miller’s book Timebends.
Through her research and her writing, Ruhl came to distinguish Becky Nurse of Salem from The Crucible in these terms: “Miller wrote a historical drama about a tragedy; I wanted to write a contemporary comedy about a historical tragedy. When I found out that there had been a debate in Salem over whether or not the site of Gallow’s Hill was currently occupied by a Dunkin’ Donuts, I knew I had a dark comedy on my hands.”
Ruhl’s gift for comedy has been evident throughout her career, and certainly in all the productions of her work at Lincoln Center Theater: The Clean House, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, The Oldest Boy, and How to Transcend a Happy Marriage. In the new play, which received an acclaimed production at Berkeley Rep in 2019, she finds humor in the daily lives of people struggling with unemployment and the opioid crisis in contemporary Salem, Massachusetts.
Ruhl’s play requires a dexterous performer in the lead role of Becky, who is a descendant of one of the 17th-century Salem accused witches. And the production has it in Deirdre (Didi) O’Connell, who earlier this year won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Dana H.
During my interview with Ruhl, O’Connell’s name came up when the dramatist talked about the changes she has made to Becky. Ruhl said: “After the first reading – which is probably my favorite part of the production process -- I started taking a scalpel to the text: cutting out a word here and there. I felt almost guilty making changes to lines Didi had already memorized. But I adore editing, particularly cutting.”
The LCT production is happening in the Mitzi Newhouse thrust theater. “I’m very excited about that,” Ruhl said. “The design will help accommodate cycles and circles – the connections between past and present – in the visual story. And we’re so fortunate to have Rebecca Taichman as the director. She has worked in the Mitzi before and understands the dimensions and dynamics of the space.” (Taichman also directed Ruhl’s How to Transcend a Happy Marriage and The Oldest Boy at the Mitzi.”)
I cannot end this blog entry without mentioning something else Ruhl has written: the affecting new memoir Smile. In it, she describes an autobiographical story: she has just survived a high-risk pregnancy when she discovers the left side of her face is completely paralyzed. Doctors assure her that 90 percent of Bell’s palsy patients experience a full recovery. But Ruhl is in the unlucky ten percent. I’m not going to say anything more about the book except: Buy it! Read it!
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.