Upon entering Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem,” one faces a lineup of wax figures.
These eerily life-like mannequins — dressed in somber, period-perfect black (costumes by Meg Neville) and posed in attitudes of censure or despair — represent residents of Salem, Mass., in the late 17th century, when hundreds of citizens, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft, some hanged.
Suspended above, poised on a broomstick, are two more women.
That startling set design (by Louisa Thompson), plus an ominous sound score (design by Mikaal Sulaiman, music by Daniel Kruger), create an instantly compelling ambiance.
But in her effort to connect the horrors of that period to today’s ills — while also deconstructing parts of Arthur Miller’s drama “The Crucible,” a metaphor for the McCarthy “witchhunts” of his own post-World War II era — Ruhl has undertaken a formidable task.
The title character, Salem native Becky (Pamela Reed), is raising her troubled teenage granddaughter (Naian González Norvino) while working as a guide in a local historical museum about the witchcraft trials.
Feisty Becky, a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, a true historical figure who was hanged for a witch, won’t stick to the proscribed script — she believes it’s not telling the whole truth — and is fired early on.
Lots happens next as she struggles to find a new job, protect her granddaughter from a dubious boyfriend (Owen Campbell), win the heart of an old schoolmate (Adrian Roberts), manage chronic pain issues and more.
Reluctantly, she consults a modern-day good witch (Ruibo Qian), with mixed results.
The number of issues and situations — emotional, social and political — that are shoehorned into this overlong play is mind-boggling: clinical depression, the opioid crisis, death, grief, guilt, the justice system, Donald Trump (we hear recorded chants of “Lock her up!” at one point), Christian beliefs, romantic entanglements, cheating husbands, working-class poverty, social class divisions, sexism …
Ruhl’s wonderfully varied plays — “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” “Eurydice” and others — have been justifiably lauded here in the Bay Area. Her “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” opens next month at Custom Made Theatre and San Francisco Playhouse will stage “The Clean House” this season.
But despite a strong cast (including Rod Gnapp and Elissa Beth Stebbins), Anne Kauffman’s assured direction and a fascinating topic to explore, Ruhl’s focus wavers here. Ultimately the heavy hand of the playwright is all too evident.
Becky Nurse of Salem
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. most Wednesdays; 2 and/or 8 p.m. Thursdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 26
Tickets: $45 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, berkeleyrep.org