Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Maria Goretti was canonized to sainthood in 1950, in tribute to the depth of her faith and capacity for forgiveness, as well as stories about desperately ill individuals who were healed soon after visiting her grave. Her story is truly remarkable, but Mercy Unrelenting is actually about the man who killed her and his journey to redemption. The play begins in 1950 with Alessandro Serenelli, forty years after his crime. Since completing his thirty-year prison sentence, he has lived in a monastery as a lay brother, tending their gardens, cleaning up after meals, and performing other duties. A journalist from a "gentleman's magazine" in Rome arrives to interview Alessandro. There is renewed interest in his case, the journalist Vittoria tells him, owing to the pending canonization ceremony, expected to draw the largest crowd ever to such an event. In reality, the ceremony drew some 500,000 to the Vatican.
Alessandro at first refuses Vittoria, but she persists, and he does tell his story. It includes a miserable childhood that leaves him feeling alone in the world, his relationship with the Goretti family, whom he lives with while doing odd jobs for them and working on his alcoholic father's rented fields, a growing restiveness with uncontrollable physical longings, and his complete rejection of God, for he felt that if there is a God, that God had rejected him. He describes the first years of his imprisonment as he continues to rail against society and God, and then the experience that transforms him into a believer: believing in God, in Maria's forgiveness, and in the possibility of being a man who does good in the world. A trenchant journalist, Vittoria pushes him on many points, challenging his story. In time it is revealed that she had interests beyond journalistic in so ardently wanting to interview Alessandro.
As the play begins, most of the narrative summarized above has already taken place and mentioned in the early minutes. Also, it is well documented in the annals of the Roman Catholic Church and known to many of that faith. Therefore, as the play moves forward there are no surprising twists in the plot. What does surprise, or at least generate interest, are the nuances and details of Alessandro's first twenty years of life, the ferocity with which he at first rejects any hope of redemption, and finally the manner in which redemption takes hold of him, implanting faith and changing his life ever after.
The play is beautifully written, with dialogue that is eloquent yet rings as authentic to each character. The only weakness is structural: so much of the play is told by Alessandro at age sixty, narrating his story as Vittoria interviews him, rather than allowing more of it to be enacted before our eyes. Yet, Alessandro's narration is full of poignancy, delivered by Jeremy Stanbary with a heartfelt blend of regret and compassion for the young man Alessandro was, and for his innocent victim. It is odd, however, that in the opening scenes Stanbary plays Alessandro as gruff and unwelcoming to Vittoria, which seems not at all in keeping with his nature following his redemption. His gruff demeanor has a comical effect, which is a tone not carried out in the rest of the play. That said, Stanbary's performance is excellent, both as the aging Alessandro and also as the young Alessandro's drunken father.
The episodes of Alessandro's life that play out before us are masterfully performed, in particular by two young actors of tremendous promise: Dawson Ehlke as young Alessandro and Abby Slater as Maria Goretti. Ehlke captures the bitterness of a boy whose family has given him nothing but disappointment and the angst as that boy turns into a solitary man with no guidance or preparation for what being a man means. He can turn on a charming façade, but the fire of his torment always seethes just beneath the skin. Slater has less time on stage, but as Maria, she wonderfully conveys the kindness and generosity of this girl on whom many household responsibilities are heaped, and the conviction of her faith that bring her to reach out in friendship to Alessandro and then remain steadfast even unto death against his actions that would violate her faith and her fears for his.
Sarah Stanbary is excellent as intrepid reporter Vittoria, her diction making it clear that she comes from another world than Alessandro, though Rome was not so very far away. When her personal agenda is revealed, Ms. Stanbary shows us the force that really roils within Vittoria. Molly Delaney Druffner gives an affecting performance as Maria's mother, Jeromy Darling is appropriately fierce as Alessandro's guard in prison, and Tim Perfect shows versatility as Maria's father, the doctor who performs the futile surgery on her, and the prison chaplain. All of the actors are guided by the steady work of co-directors Jeremy Stanbary and Stephen O'Toole, shifting smoothly among three different time frames: Alessandro's young years leading up to the crime, his imprisonment, and his elder years at the monastery.
The simple open set designed by Nate Farley is greatly enhanced by projections, created by Jeremy Stanbary, that transform the space into the Goretti's pottery-laden kitchen, the stone-faced prison cell, the inner courtyard of the monastery, the rolling hills of the countryside, and other locations. Mary Beth Schmid's costumes are exactly right for the place and time, and her feel for choosing apt fabrics is especially keen. Olivia Lundsten's lighting design is very effective, making degrees of lightness or darkness an integral part of telling the story.
To those who are believers in this faith, Mercy Unrelenting must surely serve as a powerful affirmation. For those who are not, in which I include myself, it is a well written and beautifully staged story of the possibility for a man who enters adulthood already broken to find and follow a pathway to change. We may differ on what brings about that change but would agree that our capacity to do so is remarkable and deserving of our attention. Further, the play calls on us to understand the nature of forgiveness and the power inherent in mercy. Whether or not its reverence for religious faith aligns with your world view, this is top quality stage work with emotional heft, outstanding performances, and finely crafted staging, which make Mercy Unrelenting well worth seeing.
Mercy Unrelenting runs through March 26, 2023, at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. Tickets: Adults - $30.00; seniors (65 and up); students, military and clergy - $28.00; children (ages 4 - 6) $20.00. Ticket prices include a $2.00 service fee. This play is recommended for ages 13 and up. For tickets and information, please call 612-615-1515 or visit openwindowtheatre.org.
Playwright: Jeremy Stanbary; Director: Stephen O'Toole and Jeremy Stanbary; Scenic and Props Design: Nate Farley; Costume Design: Marybeth Schmid; Lighting Design: Olivia Lundsten; Sound and Projections Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Original Music: Nicholas Lemme; Fight Choreography (Mason Tyer), Stage Manager: Kathryn Humnick;
Cast: Jeromy Darling (Prosecutor/Prison Guard), Molly Delaney Druffner (Assunta Goretti), Dawson Ehlke (Young Alessandro Serenelli), Tim Perfect (Luigi/Chaplain/Doctor), Abby Slater (Maria Goretti), Jeremy Stanbary (Old Serenelli/Giovanni), Sarah Stanbary (Vittoria Cimarelli).