A Witching Hour with Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl’s theatre career is a bridge. Particularly in her most experimental work, she builds on an artistic lineage that includes her teachers Mac Wellman and Paula Vogel, writers with poetic backbones and haunted brains. Ruhl’s plays—which have been nominated for Pulitzers and for the Tony Award—include the eerie technological fever dream “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the magic-in-everyday-things reverie “Melancholy Play,” and the epic, erudite triptych “Passion Play.” Her work delights in odd stage pictures, metaphorical flights, and slippery, lyrical logic. In “Melancholy Play,” characters overcome by grief sometimes turn into almonds.

Ruhl is best known, though, for crossing that experimental tradition with the more conventional “drama of ideas,” particularly in her most recent works. As wild as events get in her feminist plots, her protagonists are often capable women of the middle class, almost always married, grappling with how to surrender to larger mysteries. Lincoln Center—hardly an avant-garde stronghold—is her primary artistic home in New York and the place where she has brought such comic dramas as “The Clean House,” “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” and “The Oldest Boy.” (It also produced “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” her only venture on Broadway.) Now she brings Lincoln Center “Becky Nurse of Salem,” and, though it’s recognizably Ruhl-esque, the problems confronting her central character seem darkened by some new knowledge and anger. Deirdre O’Connell plays Becky, a many-times-removed descendant of a victim of the Salem witch trials, who decides that the solution to her problems is, ironically, a bit of sorcery. O’Connell, who recently won the Tony for “Dana H.,” gives a ribald, earthy, hilarious performance. At one point, Becky learns from her neighborhood witch that she’ll need to supply some of her own, shall we say, “intimate excretions” for a love charm, so she turns her back, unbuttons her pants, and goes straight to the source.

Ruhl coined the term “Ovidian form” to describe plays based, as so many of hers are, on transformations. But her elliptical, changeable dramaturgies straighten out when she writes for the page. Her plays waltz, but her books clap you on the shoulder. She has published a sprightly nonfiction collection titled “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write” and two books of verse, one written during the pandemic shutdown. After her student Max Ritvo, a brilliant poet, died at the age of twenty-five, in 2016, she also published a book of their correspondence, “Letters from Max,” which served as her final communication with a mind whose loss she deeply grieved. Her finest book, so far, is the transcendent memoir “Smile,” about her experience being stricken with Bell’s palsy, an onset of asymmetrical facial paralysis, after a pregnancy. Most playwright memoirs are delicious for their old gossip and insights into craft, but “Smile” is something else entirely: a touchstone for anyone in medical or psychological distress. By turns enraging and meditative, “Smile” distills her roving responses—grief, fury, terror, acceptance, fury again—into clear expressions of how to cope when your face goes awry. It is the book I have reached for most in the past year. None of us are living with the face we want, these days.

Ruhl spoke with me by phone, just a few days before “Becky Nurse of Salem” opened. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Where are you today—are you at the theatre? Where are you in the process for the show?

I am in the basement of Lincoln Center. I am here because there’s a talkback later, and I’m hiding while it’s raining out. I did a ritual yesterday with the actors to give the show away to them. And, because the show involves witches, we felt the need to do a witchy ritual—or at least I did.

Can you tell me what the witchy ritual was?

It involved four elements: fire, air, water, dirt. And it involved setting intentions, which is something that is common to so many ritual practices and the theatre predating Stanislavski. There’s a line in the play when the witch asks how do you expect spirits to hear you, if you don’t say things out loud. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while in terms of ritual—and of course theatre.

Do you have other rituals that are part of your work?

I carry a little pink Ganesh that Tina Howe gave me when I had a show—it was my first thing in New York, and Tina gave me that to carry to first previews. Sometimes I have to say, “The curtain goes up,” even if there’s no curtain, to the person I’m sitting with, because in my favorite childhood book they go see a play and they say, “The curtain goes up; the curtain goes up.” In terms of writing process? Sometimes I’ll meditate before I write; sometimes not. I often drink tea, and that’s about it.

In your book of “Letters from Max,” the shortest letter is “I don’t know much about my process except that it involves tea.”

Yeah. It’s really hard to talk about process. Sometimes the tea is a help.

In your essay for the Lincoln Center Theater Review, you hint at a secret. You write that everyone has a private reason for writing a play—which is not always obvious, even to the writer. You’re connecting that to Arthur Miller, who seems to have been expressing his feelings about his extramarital affair with the younger Marilyn Monroe by inventing the adulterous Abigail–John Proctor relationship in “The Crucible.” Can you talk a bit about how “Becky Nurse of Salem” is either spurred into being or, uh, midwifed, by the Miller play?

I mean, I was astonished to find out that there was this libidinal energy behind Abigail wanting to have sex with John Proctor, when, in fact, they never met. [In real life] she was eleven. He was sixty. So much of [“The Crucible”] is historically accurate, and that bit of [Miller’s] mischief just astonished me. So I thought, I’ll write an answer to “The Crucible.” Somehow Becky just started talking to me, and she talked and talked. I just listened to Becky’s voice and followed her on this pilgrim’s progress. It’s funny how you can start a play with an argument or an intellectual idea, but the truth is, what you’re hungry for is a character to start talking to you.

I’ve always hated the way Miller has John Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, prostrate herself before him, apologize to him, telling him he was a wonderful guy for cheating on her. “It were a cold house I kept!” Ugh. You actually fold infidelity into your play—but in a forgiving or, at least, a warmhearted way. Bob, Becky’s romantic interest, is married.

I wish I could say that the love story in the play operated more on the conscious plane, but I don’t even know that it did. I definitely was thinking of infidelity and Miller. Sharon [Bob’s wife, an offstage character] is not invited to chastise herself or demean herself based on Bob’s infidelity. In this play, I wanted to believe that Bob and Becky were destined, in some karmic sense. It was as though they had married souls, even though they hadn’t married each other.

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