By Daniel Skora
Williamston Theatre is presenting the World Premiere of “Our Lady of Poison”, Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier’s latest play. The drama, set in Rome in the year 1659, tells the story of three women caught up in an intrigue involving love and murder.
Giulia Tofana (Janet Haley) is an apothecary who, besides providing potions and elixirs to heal the hurts and sufferings of the townspeople, does a clandestine business selling poison to those who find themselves in need of it. Her primary customers are women with abusive husbands. The liquid poison she has devised is both colorless and tasteless, and whether drunk or mixed with food, will be fatal to the consumer within minutes. But before selling anyone her deadly concoction, Giulia must first be sure that the person she sells it to is trustworthy.
Giulia lives with her daughter Girolama Spera (Dani Cochrane), currently a widow who helps her mother mind the store. One day a finely dressed young woman enters the shop. Daniella Presti (Maeyson Menzel) is the wife of a viscount, and though a hooded shawl covers much of her face, the bruises she has received at the hands of her husband are clearly visible. Giulia’s clandestine business is apparently not as clandestine as she would want it to be, for Daniella is a most unlikely customer. When she asks to purchase the poison so as to use on her husband, Giulia immediately has doubts. Poisoning a commoner is one thing, but murdering a nobleman is quite another.
Giulia dismisses Daniella’s request and tells her to leave. But Giulia daughter feels compassion for this young woman because she, too, had a husband will similar faults. Giulia possesses a great love for her daughter, so she gives in, but not without a condition: Daniella must first work in the apothecary for one month, and if she is judged to be worthy and responsible, only then will she be given the deadly potion. It’s while undergoing this test that the relationships between the characters begins to change, and the plan that was initially set in motion will eventually reach a conclusion more deadly than each of its participants had ever imagined.
“Our Lady of Poison” will surely rank among the best of the prolific Zettelmaier’s many plays. He has created three brave and appealing women and placed them in an emotionally tragic story that transcends its period setting.
Director Shannon Ferrante has turned Zettelmaier’s script into a tense and taut drama, never going overboard on the play’s sensuality. It’s perfectly cast: Haley, the play’s anchor, in a performance worthy of Stratford; Cochrane, truly exceptional as she moves her character from subjection to her mother wishes to an independent woman; and Menzel, perfect for the part, and terrific in her first professional acting experience.
The set, design by Kirk Domer, has just enough markers to give the show a 17th century Italian look while permitting the play’s powerful story to progress unencumbered by visual distractions. And with Shakespeare today being performed by actors in leather jackets and gangster hats, it’s good to see a period play performed in period costumes, here designed by Karen Kangas-Preston.
There’s enough in the play that connects these three 17th century women with our own times: male dominance, brutality against women, homoerotic love. But all those intellectual discussions about themes and relevance can keep for the ride home. This play moves along on its own wheels: three compelling characters, a dynamite plot, and exceptional performances by two seasoned actresses and one with the best of beginnings on her way to becoming one. See it, for sure. If Williamston is a bit of a drive from wherever you live, by all means gas up the car and go. It will be well worth the effort.
Lighting design is by Shannon T. Schweitzer, sound by Julia Garlotte. Stage manager for the production is Nan Luchini. “Our Lady of Poison” runs through February 25th. Tickets can be purchased by phone Tuesday through Friday from Noon to 6:00p.m., by calling 1.517.655.7469, by visiting the Williamston box office, or ordered online up until 24 hours prior to the performance at www.williamstontheatre.org. Williamston Theatre is located at 122 S. Putnam Road in downtown Williamston. If you’re westward bound on I-96, exit at 117.