Theater & Dance
Sarah Ruhl

Latest play: "Becky Nurse of Salem"
By: Sarah Ruhl
Produced by: Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by: Anne Kauffman
Featuring: Owen Campbell as Stan, Rod Gnapp as Shapeshifter, Naian González Norvind as Gail, Ruibo Qian as Witch, Pamela Reed as Becky Nurse, Adrian Roberts as Bob, and Elissa Beth Stebbins as Shelby.
Running time: 165 minutes, one intermission
When: December 12, 2019, through January 26, 2020
Where: Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
s Tickets: $30-$97. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Lily Janiak's review in SF Gate.

Karen D'Souza's review in the Mercury News.

Sarah Ruhl
Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose "Becky Nurse of Salem" is being premiered at Berkeley Rep.
The extraordinary Sarah Ruhl
finds magic in the ordinary
With 'Becky Nurse of Salem, great playwright takes on Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible,'
and the way of the nation regarding witchcraft and women
January 1, 2020

Sarah Ruhl is easily one of the most fascinating of living playwrights. Her plays almost always include weird and wonderful ways of illuminating this odd business of being human. They are filled with sharp observation and twisted humor.

In “Eurydice,” the title character is given the hard choice of returning to life with her beloved Orpheus, or staying in the underworld with her dead, beloved father.

In “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a very kind woman answers the phone for man who is too deceased to pick it up himself, and goes on to in some ways invent a life for him, while trying to comfort those he leaves behind.

“In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” has a tech-obsessed doctor who treats “hysterical” women with the vibrator he invented, giving them “paroxysm” (orgasms), while his own wife suffers in loneliness. Until she takes matters, and him, into her own hands.

Ruhl travels in time and mythology to find the language and ways to illustrate her thinking, which is involved with the way we live today.

Her latest play, “Becky Nurse of Salem” — now on stage at Berkeley Rep — floats between the witchcraft trials of the 1690s, and modern times, when a tour guide — Rebecca — at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft is fired for calling out Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in vulgar language, in front of some school children.

“I guess I got interested in the character of Rebecca Nurse (an elderly woman who was sentenced to die for witchcraft, in real life and in “The Crucible”), after seeing a production of ‘The Crucible,’” Ruhl said during a phone interview. “It was a good production, but got me thinking about how the girls were kind of sexually presented. And, why did Miller put all this on Abigail?”

In the play, Abigail Williams is the woman who starts naming names, leading to the ruination of many of her neighbors.

In Ruhl’s play, the modern tour guide Rebecca “basically tells the school children that John Proctor (an opponent of the witch trials who was hanged as a witch in life and in Miller’s play) and the witch child never met.

“I love Becky because she’s a truth teller,” Ruhl said. “Once she started talking to me, she just wouldn’t stop.”

Miller’s 1953 play was written as an allegory for McCarthyism, which saw many writers, filmmakers, artists and musicians accused of being Communists, whether they were or not. Miller himself was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.

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“The emotional center of (‘Becky Nurse of Salem’) it is totally concocted,” said Ruhl. “I wanted to look at the older woman in the play (‘The Crucible’). Rebecca Nurse was 71, educated, deaf in one ear, couldn’t hear the questions. She was executed for her silence.

“They did a gynecological exam. The called her scars of childbirth witch’s marks.

“I am fascinated by Salem. They covered up its association with witchcraft for years, then maybe in the 1950s, tourism became its economic boom — that’s the arc of American history.”

Salem in modern times is one of the places “that’s been left behind,” Ruhl said, “dealing with the ravages of the opioid epidemic. Becky (the modern tourguide) is dealing with it, with her daughter.”

For a while, Ruhl said, she was going to call the play “Lock It Up,” but “didn’t want the politics of the present time so foregrounded in the play.”

“Still, the fingerprints of my rage about the Trump administration are all over the play,” Ruhl said, although “The political situation is backgrounded; Becky is in the forefront.

“When Trump was campaigning and whipping large crowds into a frenzy,” Ruhl said, “I guess I thought of witches and witchhunts. That and the combination of seeing ‘The Crucible’ and this moment of strange discourse about women.

“Bizarrely, it’s a comedy,” Ruhl said. “At first I thought I’d write a tragedy of Salem. But, oh, I’d forgotten — Miller already wrote a tragedy.”

She likes how women are fighting back about Trump, including “amazing ambassador” Marie Yovanovitch, who testified before Congress.

For Halloween, Ruhl dressed up at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “A brunette wig, a nice, tailored jacket. I thought I’d use it as an excuse to get high-heeled shoes, but donated that money to the Democratic Party instead.”

From Chicago, Ruhl now lives in Brooklyn, with husband Tony Charuvastra and children Anna, 13; and 9-year-old twins William and Hope.

A prolific playwright, she said she likes to write two to three hours a day, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., when she can.

Why does she write what she writes?

“I guess I feel like I’m always interested in mythic structures we inherit culturally, and how that interacts in everyday life,” Ruhl said. “I’m always interested in the ordinary and the extraordinary together.”

John Orr is a member of the America Theatre Critics Association. Email him at
Pamela Reed
Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Pamela Reed as Becky Nurse in Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s "Becky Nurse of Salem," directed by Anne Kauffman.
Pamela Reed
Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Pamela Reed as Rebecca in Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere production of Sarah Ruhl’s "Becky Nurse of Salem," directed by Anne Kauffman.