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You don’t get more American than descending from one of the witches burned at the stake in Salem, Mass. Unless, that is, you’re also an opioid addict in that same town during the Trump years, raising your teenaged granddaughter, who is currently incarcerated in a mental hospital in part because she watched her mother (your daughter) die of an overdose at the local Walgreens.

Sarah Ruhl, in her new play “Becky Nurse of Salem” now playing at Lincoln Center Theater, makes a distinction between those who understand the truth of persecution in America because they’ve lived it (see Hillary Clinton) and those who insist on alternative stories of persecution for their own benefit: sex (Arthur Miller), money, fame, power (Trump) — and denial (Becky Nurse).

In the first act, Becky (Deirdre O’Connell), a loud, irreverent 62-year-old local, is fired from her job as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft for going off script and dropping the F-bomb in front of some nuns. The museum is run by a tall, blond, polished PhD (Tina Benko) with no connection to Salem’s history, and Becky doesn’t like the story this “bitch” is pushing about those burned at the stake. It doesn’t help that Becky’s having daily liquid lunches at the local bar owned by Bob (Bernard White), the guy she’s been in love with since high school.

So being unfit for any other available work and unable to pay her bills, Becky hires a local “witch” (Candy Buckley, looking like she stepped out of a 1980s Tribeca dinner party) to help her get the things she needs by way of potions, spells, and magic stones, even though Becky doesn’t really believe in witchcraft — or much of anything. But the witch’s remedies (and all the underhanded and sometimes illegal things Becky has to do to implement them) work, and Becky gets what she wants (including Bob).

The good luck doesn’t last long, though, because Becky ends up in jail, sans drugs, going through withdrawals. The second act is all about her hallucinations, mostly of being falsely accused and taunted, via choreographed pantomimes by most of the rest of the cast in frumpy pilgrim costumes straight out of “The Crucible.”

The Trump years were filled with overwrought emotions, lies, and general mayhem in this country, and people got caught up. Maybe among those people was MacArthur Fellow Ruhl, who took what was a good idea — the story of an ordinary American woman obsessed with the truth of the Salem witch trials during a post-#MeToo era — and buried it in muddy thinking, confusing allusions to current events, mystifyingly silly theatrics, and mostly pushed performances by way of director Rebecca Taichman. O’Connell, who won a Tony this year for her performance in “Dana H.,” goes for the laughs and gets them, but never really dials it down enough to make space for her character’s subtleties.

It’s a big swing that Ruhl takes, attempting to include the whole world in the story of one woman, and you have to admire her for that. But it’s also a big miss. If she’d spent more time developing her characters and their relationships to one another so that we actually cared about them, the play might have worked. As it stands now, “Becky Nurse of Salem” is promising at the start, but disappointing shortly thereafter, when the audience is bombarded with the kind of confusing noise inspired by those terrible years.

‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ Review: Witch Trials, Trump and the Kitchen Sink in Sarah Ruhl’s Overstuffed New Play

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center; 287 seats; $92 top. Opened December 4, 2022. Reviewed Dec. XX. Running time: 2 HOURS.

  • Production: A Lincoln Center Theater production of a play in two acts by Sarah Ruhl.
  • Crew: Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Sets, Riccardo Hernández; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lights, Barbara Samuels; sound, Palmer Hefferan; projections, Tal Yarden; composer, Suzzy Roche; production manager, Paul Smithyman.
  • Cast: Tina Benko, Candy Buckley, Alicia Crowder, Deirdre O'Connell, Thomas Jay Ryan, Julian Sanchez, Bernard White.