Williamston Theatre seems to have an uncanny knack for timing. In advance of the 2016 Presidential election, WT’s team put “1984” in its season lineup, and by the time the show hit Williamston’s stage in 2017, George Orwell’s dystopian classic was atop the fiction bestseller list again; and now, in the midst of a cultural conversation (fueled by #MeToo) about gender and power, WT happens to be offering the world premiere production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Our Lady of Poison.”
Not that the play would seem, at first blush, to be all that timely. Set in 1659 Rome, “Poison” focuses on three women: Giulia Tofana (Janet Hayle), a beloved, unapologetically bawdy apothecary, who occasionally supplies abused local women with poison disguised as holy water; her daughter Girolama (Dani Cochrane), a world-weary young widow who works alongside Giulia; and Daniella Presti (Maeyson Menzel), the young wife of a nobleman who seeks an escape hatch from her life.
Giulia is understandably wary when Daniella arrives at the shop, without notice or introduction, asking to purchase poison. For Giulia has survived her many years as a businesswoman precisely because she is cautious, smart, and stealthy about selling her fatal concoctions. But when Daniella and Girolama press the noblewoman’s case further, Giulia invites Daniella to work in the shop for a month, so that she might know her better. In the interim, though, Daniella and Girolama grow close while working side-by-side, and Girolama makes a choice that puts them all three women in grave danger.
Though “Poison” has a running time of just 90 minutes, with no intermission, it’s got plenty of plot, and Zettelmaier skillfully drops in more and more crucial information about the characters’ pasts as the scenes build, so that the exposition feels organic (no small feat). Though there are occasional moments of humor, “Poison” is a true drama, exploring how oppressed, pre-whisper-network women, in a specific historic moment, still found ways to aid and rescue each other on the DL.
Girolama is the fulcrum upon which the story hinges, and Cochrane’s depiction of the character’s journey from resignation back to sensual joy feels downright lived-in; plus, when her loyalties are tested, she is pained but fiercely clear in her response.
Meanwhile, Menzel’s youthful, delicate appearance and voice underscore the challenge inherent in (both the audience and the play’s characters) trying to predict how the seemingly headstrong young woman will respond in moments of crisis. And Haley ultimately anchors the show as the wiser, older woman who’s made (and had to live with) tough choices, and who can see what the younger women cannot. Plus, when Girolama’s made to answer for her crimes, Haley’s evocation of punishment, heartbreak, and enduring motherly love is a marvel to witness.
Director Shannon Ferrante neither shies away nor amps up “Poison”’s eroticism, but instead presents its love scenes with a straightforward gentleness; and while the script veers toward melodrama in its final act, the production’s tone remains consistent.
Kirk Domer’s set design for “Poison” is spare but functional, so that while the actors have most of the tiled stage to work with, they also have the shop’s entryway, a worktable, a few seats, and a small, engraving-decorated fountain that becomes, late in the play, highly charged with meaning, danger, and possibility.
Shannon T. Schweitzer beautifully lights the show with an eye to its moods – from the beginnings of love and hope, to dark desperation, to a sense of being trapped – and Karen Kangas-Preston’s costumes visually convey the characters’ different economic status and personalities, as well as suggest their specific moment in Italian history. Julia Garlotte’s sound design plays a key role near the show’s conclusion, and Michelle Raymond’s props effectively round out the illusion of “Poison”’s world coming to life.
A few minor questions arose for me as the play’s drama ramped up – questions like, Would these people realistically get the opportunity to have this conversation? Would that character really commit this irreparable, violent act? Were some authorial choices made in order to serve a pre-ordained end? – but getting into specifics would involve getting into spoilers, so I will leave my small quibbles at that.
Overall, Zettelmaier tells a tight and pretty engaging story via “Poison,” and perhaps most impressively, it’s drawn from an intriguing pocket of history you’re probably not too familiar with. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll likely find yourself pondering the ways in which women have always been locked into limited life options, strictly by virtue of their gender, and how astonishing it is that time and time again, they find Houdini-like ways to subvert their oppression and help each other.
All of which is to say, if you find yourself in a position to pick your theatrical “Poison” in the near future, hie thee to Williamston. It’ll be quick – but I can’t promise that you won’t feel a thing.
“Our Lady of Poison” runs through Feb. 25th at the Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St. in Williamston. For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.williamstontheatre.org.