Giulia Tofana is a curious historical figure. Her tale takes us back to mid-17th century Rome, where she became infamous for selling poison to women who desired to murder their husbands. Because divorce was obviously an impossibility, poisoners such as Tofana became a scorned woman’s most viable option.
Tofana grew into somewhat of a local hero, and her operation was reputedly regularly defended from the authorities by her loyal customers.
Now, the latest Williamston Theatre production turns to the practitioner of poison as inspiration for, “Our Lady of Poison,” which makes it world premiere Friday night.
Williamston Theatre’s stalwart playwright, Joseph Zettelmaier, discovered Tofana’s story in an article, and immediately became feverishly obsessed.
“I completely fell in love with the story,” Zettelmaier said. “I dove headfirst into researching everything I could about her.”
Like a lot of good folk stories, Zettelmaier says, there are just a few definitive things that happened, and very little else. “Aqua Tofana” was the clandestine merchant’s magnum opus, becoming Rome’s marquee widow maker.
Zettelmaier takes some creative liberties with history, in order to shape a classic tale of murder and romance.
“I’ve always had a great fascination with Italian culture to begin with,” said Zettelmaier. “When this opportunity presented itself, it was too good to pass up.”
“Our Lady of Poison” deeply explores the relationship between Giulia Tofana and her daughter, Girolama.
“They’re entire lives are built around perpetuating death, but they love each other so much,” Zettelmaier said. “The play kind of deals with what it means to love someone so much, even though you know what you’re doing is awful.”
Zettelmaier doesn’t call the case of these affectionate assassins ironic, opting to refer to them as “fascinating.”
Director Shannon Ferrante feels the story is a parallel for the struggles faced by women today.
“Tofana gives poison to women, because they have no other options,” Ferrante said. “It speaks to the way things were. Women were seen as second class citizens and couldn’t achieve justice any other way.”
Costume designer Karen Kangas Preston was tasked with recreating both the illustrious Italian fashion of the late Rennassaince era, and the rugged robes that were a hallmark of the lower class. Judging from production photos, she’s done an incredible job.
In fact, Ferrante argues the tightly corseted dresses offer a perfect visual motif, in a story all about women escaping the confines of a restrictive, forced relationship.
In a play that blurs the lines of love and death, Ferrante says her cast brings an intense level of energy.
“There are shows where there’s character conflict, versus plot driven conflict,” Ferrante said. “The actors really have to piece together throughout the entire show, what’s going on with them internally and how they’re interacting with the other people onstage.”
Ferrante and Zettelmaier together have a unique chemistry of their own. “Our Lady of Poison” puts the two in old familiar territory, as Ferrante has directed Zettelamaier’s original works more times than any other.
“She is somebody I trust completely, she’s directed many of my plays before,” Zettelmaier said. “She has a deeply ingrained understanding of what my plays are trying to convey, and it’s a joy working with her.”
And for Ferrante, the feeling is mutual.
“Our Lady of Poison”
at the Williamston Theatre through Feb. 25
Thursday evenings: $27
Friday and Saturday evenings: $32
Saturday and Sunday matinees: $29
Student tickets: $10
Senior discount (65 and older): $2 off regular ticket price
Military discount: $2 off regular ticket price