“Becky Nurse of Salem,” the latest play by Sarah Ruhl, has just opened at Lincoln Center Theater, and the MacArthur-winning playwright wants to make one thing clear: While her play is in many ways a feminist riposte to “The Crucible,” she actually likes Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic about the Salem witch trials.
“I think Arthur Miller is a genius and it’s a masterpiece,” Ruhl said, in an interview conducted while “Becky Nurse” was in previews. “And I think as a metaphor for scapegoating and for naming names and McCarthyism, it is incredible.”
But when Ruhl saw director Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Broadway revival of the play, some elements didn’t sit right with her. Fourteen women were hanged in 17th century Salem, ostensibly for practicing witchcraft. But the protagonist of “The Crucible” is a middle-aged man, John Proctor. And a 17-year-old girl, Abigail Williams, is romantically interested in him.
When Ruhl remarked to fellow playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins how odd it all seemed, he directed her to a New Yorker essay Arthur Miller wrote about creating "The Crucible," in which he seemed to obliquely take responsibility for the dissolution of his first marriage. Jacobs-Jenkins told Ruhl that Miller had wanted to "get with Marilyn Monroe." Ruhl perused Miller's autobiography, "Timebends: A Life," and watched "Arthur Miller: Writer," a documentary made by the playwright's daughter, Rebecca Miller, and was convinced her friend was right.
"Ostensibly, Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' was about McCarthyism and the blacklist," Ruhl would later write in an afterword to her own play. "But privately it was about Miller's guilt at wanting to sleep with Marilyn Monroe."
That emotional context surprised Ruhl: “I had no idea,” she said. On re-reading "The Crucible," she was struck by the creative liberties Miller took with characters drawn from history. In the play, Proctor is a 35-year-old farmer, but the actual Proctor was 60. In addition to farming, he owned a tavern, which had made him prosperous.
Similarly, Abigail Williams was 11 — not 17, as she is in the play — and there was no evidence of a sexual relationship between them. But because "The Crucible" is a staple of English curricula and high school drama productions, an ignominious chapter of American history that mostly victimized women is inextricably linked to the trajectory of a doomed male hero.
Ruhl began imagining her own fictional response to the Salem witch trials. Her protagonist is Becky Nurse, a 62-year-old descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged for witchcraft. Rebecca Nurse was a mother of eight and known for being pious. That’s not true of Becky, who is profane, an occasional opioid user and a hothead.
“Becky Nurse screws up,” says Ruhl. “What I love about her is she’s salty, she’s a truth teller, she plunges in when she’s under duress. But she absolutely keeps messing up.”
In the first scene of the play, Becky is fired for going off-script when she gives tours at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft. She has a flirtatious relationship with Bob, the owner of the local bar. Her granddaughter has been hospitalized for depression. Desperate to pull her life together, Becky solicits help from a witch.
That sets her on a path that culminates in breaking the law. When the local police officer cuffs her, Becky is catapulted back to 17th century Salem. There, a crowd chants phrases that will sound very contemporary to anyone who followed the 2016 presidential election: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Rebecca Taichman is directing “Becky Nurse of Salem,” her eighth collaboration with Ruhl. Taichman admires how the playwright weaves together compelling stories while asking bigger questions. “It’s a very real story about a very real-feeling woman,” she said. “And yet it also limns that with the lineage of the danger of the female, a woman in power.”
Deirdre O'Connell, who won a Tony Award last year for playing the title role in “Dana H,” says the rise of female writers and directors like Ruhl and Taichman has created opportunities for actors like herself.
“There is more writing for grown-up ladies then there was when I was a kid," she said, "and I was looking at the women I knew, and I was like, ‘Oh, when you hit 40 there’s going to be nothing left.’”
O’Connell recalls that when she woke up the morning after she read the script, she wondered if she had fantasized its existence. Becky Nurse is indisputably the center of the play, and even though she’s in her 60s, she is unabashedly sensual. She’s reckless, but also admirable.
“’How could this part even exist?’” O’Connell said. “It still feels like that. It feels like a strange blessing that has fallen on me. Don’t wake me up yet! You can’t wake me up until January.”
“Becky Nurse of Salem” runs at Lincoln Center Theater through Dec. 31; for more information, visit lct.org.