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Of widowmakers and woe

Death and romance abound in‘Our Lady of Poison’


“Broken Women”: What can they do, where can they go when assaulted by a husband, a lover, a friend?

At Williamston Theatre, playwrite Joseph Zettlemaier invites us back in time, to a cleverly reconstructed era, Rome, Italy 1659 A.D. There, a battered and bruised Contessa shows up at an under-the-table apothecary for therapeutic assistance, seeking a deadly pharmaceutical from herbalist-in-residence, Giulia Tofana.

Tofana, portrayed by Janet Haley, is at the heart of this three-woman stage play.

She is joined onstage by Maeyson Menzel as Contessa Daniella Presti, and Dani Cochrane as Giulia’s daughter -- Girolama Spera.

Tofana has been there, has empathy for those victimized, and sadly has had to murder her own abusive husband and as many as 600 more in the plying of her deadly trade.

An evil person? Not in this story. How about a commoner, a superhero, a Wonder Woman, a survivor who takes care of business? Eh, maybe all of the above.

Haley, as Giulia, is masterful and statuesque, towering over her daughter and the Contessa. She brings a substantial no-nonsense dignity to this significant cultural role, and imbues Giulia with brave, idealistic tones. Quickly, the actress disappears into character and sustains it throughout the play.

Giulia immediately sizes up the Contessa as insufficiently courageous to poison her abuser. But alas, her daughter is smitten, discovering an affinity for a female lover, the Contessa, after a lifetime of very disappointing male lovers.

A stern warning to Girolama from her mother—not to trust a royal — is ignored, and the consequence is that the Contessa flinches, unable to do the dirty deed.

Giulia is now exposed. A hanging is imminent.

Girolama, unable to imagine living without her mother, subtly poisons the Contessa, and both she and her mother succumb to the angry (voice over) mob demanding a lynching—but not before Giulia delivers a delusional but powerful empowerment speech. Bravo.

Menzel and Cochrane bring an authentic, youthful exuberance to their roles. An intimate love scene is staged delicately and artfully. Kudos to director Sharron Ferrante.

Kirk Domer’s simple, abstract set involves the running crew moving an ornate pharmacy table to and fro, under an arch of what appear to be blood red plastic bottles. One can easily imagine castle walls, and life outside this quasi-secret room.

This speaks volumes to our current secret rooms, the prisons of our understandably fearful minds. Three hundred years have gone by since this all-out approach to curb abuse.

Imagine the courage, in today’s world, that it takes for a 13 year old, a 17 year old, to say—enough. Enough for herself, enough for all others, enough is enough.

Me, too.


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