Sarah Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman on conjuring 'Becky Nurse of Salem'
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Sarah Ruhl and Rebecca Taichman on conjuring 'Becky Nurse of Salem'
The playwright Sarah Ruhl, left, and the director Rebecca Taichman at Lincoln Center in New York, Oct. 25, 2022. Their new Off Broadway play, “Becky Nurse of Salem,” a dark comedy about power, inheritance and, of course, witchcraft, is now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater. (Erik Tanner/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- On a recent Tuesday morning, playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Rebecca Taichman were gazed at a window, diamond-paned and much-repaired, on the second floor of the New-York Historical Society. A showpiece of the Society’s exhibition “The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming,” the window had once stood in the home of Rebecca Nurse, a Salem woman who was hanged for witchcraft in 1692. At 71, she was the eldest among the trials’ two dozen victims.

“Rebecca Nurse looked through this,” Taichman marveled, snapping a picture with her phone. “It’s very powerful, like stepping into memory.”

Ruhl tried to see through the window, but the window didn’t make it easy. The panes were thick, the glass distorted in several places. This, she said, was like trying to see back into the past, trying to understand, as an artist, what had happened in Salem. “There’s this veil we’re trying to pierce,” she said. “We keep telling new stories.”

One new story is “Becky Nurse of Salem,” a Lincoln Center Theater production that is now in previews at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Written by Ruhl and directed by Taichman, who last collaborated on the 2017 play “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” it conjures a dark comedy about power, inheritance and the opioid epidemic. In dialogue with both Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and contemporary conspiracy theories, “Becky Nurse of Salem” stars Tony-winning actress Deirdre O’Connell as Becky, a many generations removed descendant of Rebecca Nurse. Fired from her job at Salem’s witch museum, Becky gives actual witchcraft a try.

After perusing the exhibit, which concluded with an Alexander McQueen dress and photos of contemporary practitioners, Ruhl (known for “In the Next Room”) and Taichman (“Indecent”) retired to a conference room to discuss the new play’s origins and implications and why the United States seems to be having what Ruhl described as “a very witchy moment.” Do these women believe in magic?

“Of course I believe in magic,” Ruhl said. “Why else would I choose this profession?”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Is witchcraft something you’ve always been attracted to?

RUHL: I have done tarot cards. I’m pretty good at reading people’s tarot cards. But they started to worry me. Because they can be so dire. So I switched to the I Ching. I wouldn’t describe that as witchy; it’s more Taoist and Confucian and Buddhist. But it is a form of divination, I suppose.

TAICHMAN: I did once go see — I don’t know what you’d call her, something between a witch, a psychic, a healer. That’s a funny story. She told me I had been strangled in a previous life. I lay on her table and she did all these things. And then I left and when I got to the bottom of her five-floor walk-up, I realized I had forgotten something. I went back up and knocked on her door, she was buck naked. I was like, wow, I must have terrible energy. Like, she rushed to get it out.

Q: Is magic something you believe in? Do you believe in forces beyond those demonstrated by science?

TAICHMAN: The idea that everything is explainable seems crazy to me. There’s magic in being alive.

RUHL: I do. It’s like that line in “Hamlet,” that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I’ve seen so much evidence of that, whether it’s strange coincidences and dreams, strange synchronicities. And theater is a form of magic.

Q: How is theater magic?

RUHL: One of the first plays I saw was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” My mom was directing it at a Catholic high school. There’s so much magic in that play. Then the enacting of the play, the putting bodies into roles, that’s another kind of magic. And the audience coming and receiving it is another kind of magic. It’s magic piled on magic.

TAICHMAN: When it’s really working, it’s pure magic. It has a real sense of the impossible becoming possible, visible.

RUHL: We worked with a magician on the first show we did together, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage.” He made a dove seem to appear form nowhere. With magicians, it’s a trick, it’s not seeing all of the work that goes into an illusion. In theater, often, you see the illusion, you see the work, and it’s still magical.

Q: When did you begin to write this play?

RUHL: I started after Trump was elected (in 2016) and people were still chanting, “Lock her up,” which really upset me. I felt their hatred for this woman (Hillary Rodham Clinton). It felt very personal, very visceral. It felt like Salem to me.

Meanwhile, I had just seen Ivo van Hove’s production of “The Crucible,” which really laid bare the bones of the play for me. The way Arthur Miller explains the witch trials is that Abigail wants to have sex with an older man, John Proctor, and when he refuses, she starts accusing other women (of witchcraft). I thought, that can’t possibly be true. Then I talked to (playwright) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and he said that Arthur Miller wanted to get with Marilyn Monroe at that point. Miller admits that that’s part of the reason he wrote Abigail. I was really upset with this historical mischief. Because “The Crucible” is done every day, somewhere in the world. Every day, there’s a young girl playing Abigail, who was actually 11 and never met John Proctor.

So there were crowds chanting “Lock her up,” and there was my wanting to be in dialogue with “The Crucible.” I was researching and researching, and then I thought, I can’t write my own historical tragedy. Because the shadow of Arthur Miller was so big. Being in dialogue with him, I had to do an opposite action, which was to write a contemporary comedy. Just before putting pen to paper, I was looking at some Salem town hall meetings. And I discovered that there was some quarrel in the community about whether Gallows Hill was at the Dunkin’ Donuts or the Walgreens. It’s like, oh, I found my play.

Q: The majority of the accused and executed in Salem were women. It seems like the most Arthur Miller choice to center one middle-aged white dude instead.

RUHL: It’s incredible. And it’s not just Arthur Miller. In Salem, the place where all the executions took place is called Proctor’s Ledge. But I thought about Rebecca Nurse. Why is no one writing about the oldest woman? Why is she not the center?

Q: So who was Rebecca Nurse and who is Becky Nurse?

RUHL: Rebecca Nurse was a pious older woman, in her 70s. She was married to a weaver. She was really well loved and respected in the town. She was called in and accused and first she was found innocent, but then they were like, No, let’s do another trial. She was convicted and killed. Her children took her body in the dead of night to bury it properly. There are tons of descendants, because she had eight kids.

Becky Nurse is a salty woman who works at the witch museum in Salem. She’s a descendant of Rebecca Nurse and she’s having trouble keeping her family afloat. She needs love and a job and stability for her granddaughter, and she ends up going to see a witch to find those things.

Q: Why did you want Deirdre O’Connell for this?

TAICHMAN: I mean, Didi is a magical person. We are very lucky to have her.

RUHL: I’ve wanted to work with her forever. She is so transformational and so real and funny. She has a wildness to her. She’s just magnificent, one of the most alive actors.

Q: Will America ever be comfortable with women in power? With groups of women in power?

TAICHMAN: The only way to live is to have some kind of hope. So my hope would be yes. But not now. Not yet.

RUHL: To think about that moment, and then the Women’s March moment and then Roe being overturned, I mean, we’re in a seismic moment in history. It’s a lot of whiplash.

Q: How do you square a belief that there weren’t any witches in Salem in 1692 with a personal belief in magic?

TAICHMAN: The idea that anything in Salem, in these trials, had to do with real witchcraft, is terribly misleading. A contemporary search for healing or for spiritual connectedness feels so unrelated to the accusations against these women. There is a longing to reclaim that word, “witch,” and allow it to be empowering and beautiful.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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