Alessandro Serenelli is a major league creep. Rage bubbles inside him like molten lead. He grunts and groans, unable to look anyone in the eye, unable even to stand up straight. His fury confounds him – and us. As a source he seizes on the mysterious death of his mother in an insane asylum but that’s not it, not really; his homicidal mania is as unstoppable as a glacier.
Jeremy Stanbary’s bravura portrait of Serenelli is the greatest pleasure to be had in his relentless (Stanbary is also the author) Mercy Unrelenting (Open Window Theatre, through Oct 13). Stanbary prowls the small arena stage with simian presence and power. He is like a runaway freight train: disturbing and scary, but you can’t tear your eyes away from him.
The object of Serenelli’s frenzy is the young and virginal Maria Goretti, the daughter of Serenelli’s employer. Katie Law-Gotich gives an excellent performance in this difficult role: sweet without being cloying, safeguarding her sexual virtue without any prim arrogance (Stanbary’s smart script helps a lot). Serenelli murders her, and the moment, though staged with restraint, is breathlessly effective.
Goretti dies agonizingly. As the years pass, she evolves into a virgin-martyr. Miracles attract thousands of supplicants to her gravesite. Finally, in 1950, nearly 50 years after her death, Goretti is canonized a Roman Catholic saint. Her story, and Serenelli’s passage from sub-human murderer to repentant monk, form the underpinnings of Mercy Unrelenting.
Other artists deserve praise: David Coral does steady and intelligent work as the older Serenelli (though the play too often makes him just a vehicle for exposition). Christian Bardin is lovely as the journalist as she unexpectedly but convincingly turns shrill and judgmental. Ellen Apel is excellent as the Goretti’s officious but loving mother Assunta. Composer Nicholas Lemme has created some interesting semi-dissonant, Gregorian chant inflected b.g. music.
There is a vital question at the center of this play: how could a merciful God permit such horror? Is Goretti the virgin somehow more virtuous, and a better Christian, because she doesn’t give in to her attacker (unlike the hundreds of thousands of rape victims around the planet)? I, an unapologetic unbeliever, didn’t care about, or even fully comprehend this question. But if God is an integral presence in your life, the issue might have genuine resonance. No matter what you believe, though, there is no question but that Mercy Unrelenting generates real power.
It’s not a perfect play. It’s long and could, in my not-so-humble opinion, benefit from having 20-30 minutes taken out of it. It’s also extremely past tense. But it’s undeniably powerful.
Check out this theater. Open Window performs at an out-of-the-way venue (1313 Chestnut Ave, behind the basilica). The small arena space is a beaut – and the seats are comfortable.
For more information about John Olive, check out his website.