Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Becky Nurse of Salem
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Ruibo Qian and Pamela Reed
Photo by Kevin Berne/
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
In Becky Nurse of Salem, which opened last night in a world premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Peet's Theatre, playwright Sarah Ruhl takes us back to a more innocent time in American history. No, not the 17th century of the Salem witch trials, which was anything but innocent (though the play does occasionally flash back to that dark period), but rather the lead up to the 2016 election, when polls were still something mostly trusted, and presidents (and candidates for the office) could generally be counted on to be, well, presidential.

But in this powerhouse of a play (with an equally powerhouse performance by Pamela Reed as Becky Nurse), chants of "lock her up" resound across the centuries, back in time to the girls of colonial Massachusetts falsely accused of witchcraft, and from their trials forward to the vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton by candidate Donald Trump and his rabid followers. Juxtaposing recordings of Trump rallies against the image of young women in puritan garb standing before the bar is a chilling moment early in act one that establishes a terrifying resonance to our current sociopolitical environment. Sarah Ruhl's cunningly constructed play is chockablock with precisely this sort of political and cultural reference, laying bare mistakes and missteps made not only in our political and legal systems, but by the broader culture in terms of societal norms and the artistic reactions to them.

As the play opens, Becky Nurse is a guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, leading a tour of high school students through the museum's rather cheesy dioramas featuring clumsily crafted statues of men and women in Puritan garb. Being a Salem native and a direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse, one of the women executed for witchcraft, Becky has her own take on the events that brought the town its infamy. (And, being a native, her alphabet lacks the letter "R.") She asks if any of the students have seen The Crucible, Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials that was an allegory for Senator Joe McCarthy's inquest into alleged communist infiltration in America, and is surprised when they haven't: "It's like our goddam Christmas pageant here in Salem." When she tells them John Proctor, the hero of The Crucible, was actually 60 and not 35 as Miller made him, and that Abigail Williams, the accused witch with whom Proctor had had an affair was not 17, but only 11, and uses the F word to describe Proctor's intent toward her, she's fired.

Here Ruhl's story begins to open up, and we begin to see the chaos in Becky's life: her granddaughter, whom she is raising alone, is hospitalized for depression; Becky appears to have an opioid addiction; and her job prospects are limited by her lack of education and her crusty exterior. Although she seems to care very little about a lot of things, she actually cares very deeply about her granddaughter, about the true history of Salem, and especially about Bob, the owner of the bar where she spends much of her time. When Becky misses out on a night clerk job at the local Marriott (teenage Stan, played by Owen Campbell, who gives Becky a dead eye stare that elicits one of the biggest laughs of the night, beat her to it), she turns to a local witch (Ruibo Qian) whom Stan refers her to, to turn her luck around. As it turns out, the witch might actually have supernatural powers, and things start going a lot better for Becky. Until they don't, and Becky must learn how to create her own luck and find her own voice. "Rebecca Nurse, at the most defining moment of her life," Becky says, "kept silent." Her descendant will not make the same mistake.

As Becky, Pamela Reed is nothing short of brilliant. Her tiny frame belies the tremendous power she brings to her performance. Her Becky is no one you'd ever want to mess with—on any level. She seems capable of holding her own in any situation, and Reed likewise seizes full control of every aspect of her character. With a raise of her eyebrows or a tilt of her head she can communicate the years of experience (and pain) that resides within Becky. Adrian Roberts creates a portrayal of bar owner Bob that builds magnificently over the course of the play: it's clear he's a bit in awe of Becky, but that awe comes slowly, scene by scene as he is at first a sort of caretaker for Becky, then a besotted lover, and finally a friend, and equal, and admirer.

The rest of the cast provide Reed with highly capable scene partners, helping us to slowly peel away the layers of armor with which Becky Nurse protects herself. Naian González Norvind plays Gail, Becky's 14 (almost 15) year-old granddaughter with a yearning for independence and self-determination to which most parents can relate, even if Becky still treats her a bit like a baby, encouraging her to sit on her lap and "cuddle." Elissa Beth Stebbins, as Shelby, Becky's boss at the museum, is appropriately stiff and reserved, but opens like a crocus out of the frost in act two. Ruibo Qian embodies her witch with a breezy confidence that helps us understand how Becky comes to trust in and rely upon her. Bay Area veteran actor Rod Gnapp brings his usual lovable gruffness to his roles as a cop and judge. (He's listed in the program as "shape shifter.")

Technically, the show lives up to the high standard Bay Area audiences have come to expect from Berkeley Rep, and Anne Kauffman's direction is taut and efficient, moving seamlessly from one scene to the next and one era to another.

There's much more to say about Becky Nurse of Salem, for Sarah Ruhl has embedded layer upon layer of meaning and connection and social commentary into a story that never flags and never betrays the audience's attention. There is much said in Becky Nurse of Salem about feminism, authority, theocracy, history, family, friendship, love and power—but it's better you hear it from Sarah Ruhl and the cast and crew presenting this magnificent work of theatrical art.

Becky Nurse of Salem runs through January 26, 2020, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees have been scheduled Thursday, January 2, and Thursday, January 23, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, visit, or call the box office at 510-647-2949.