Mercy Unrelenting at Open Window Theatre

Photo by Kayla Ninnemann

Mercy Unrelenting is the true story of the Catholic Saint Maria Goretti and her murderer Alessandro Serenelli. It’s a brutal story filled with horrific acts and should not be attended by who may have endured a violent sexual or non-sexual assault, or is under the age of 14, would be my recommendation. With that out of the way, it’s an extremely well acted and ultimately inspirational story that will leave you pondering forgiveness, but also what message is sent by the canonization of Maria Goretti. It makes a strong case for the peace that can come from accepting forgiveness from others and from yourself.

The play is written and co-directed with Stephen O’Toole, by Jeremy Stanbary. Stanbary also plays the older version of Serenelli that we meet as the play opens. A female journalist named Vittoria Cimarelli has been given permission to interview Serenelli by his superior. This occurs nearly 50 years after the murder was committed, and around the time that Maria Goretti is becoming a Saint of the Catholic Church. We see the story that Serenelli tells Cimarelli played out in flashback on the stage. Maria Goretti was a 12 year old girl who was stabbed 14 times by Alessandro Serenelli after refusing to submit to his demands for sexual favors. On her death bed, she forgave Serenelli. For years, locked away in prison Serenelli was unrepentant. One night he had a vision of Goretti and afterwards requested to see the Chaplain. When he was released from prison he spent the remainder of his life a lay brother of the order of Friars, Minor Capuchin, as the gardner and receptionist.

Sarah Stanbary plays Serenellis interviewer, Vittoria Cimarelli. Jeremy also plays Giovanni, Alessandro Serenelli’s father, in the flashback sequence. Both give excellent performances. Jeremy is so effective in both roles that despite having a similar appearance, a striking beard and bald head, I had to check my program to ensure it was the same actor. Sarah gets a very powerful moment in the second act when she reveals a secret of her own that really challenges Serenellis beliefs. It’s an emotionally raw scene and both Stanbarys are riveting in it. Dawson Ehlke plays the young Serenelli and Abby Slater is Goretti. Again fantastic casting, the pair of them build such tension and suspense in the scenes leading up to the murder. The cast is rounded out with Molly Delaney Druffner as Assunta Goretti, Maria’s Mother. Jeromy Darling plays The Prosecutor in a short seen at the beginning and the prison guard throughout. Finally, a friend Tim Perfect in not one, not two, but three pretty much one scene roles. I was looking forward to see Tim but was disappointed in the lack of stage time he has despite playing three roles. His best role is the Doctor who attended Maria, he describes the wounds and the surgery she endured without anesthetic and speaks of the girls braveness, it’s a nice if all too short moment.

Stanbary and O’Toole direct the action which takes place on and a round a stage built in the shape of a cross. I like the way the elder Serenelli was gardening around the cross and then the story he was telling, the flashback, took place upon the cross. Essentially, we have Maria dying on the cross, Serenelli suffering years in prison upon the cross, and old repentant Serenelli caring for the cross. The set design is by Nate Farley and it works well in conjunction of some well executed but simple projections designed by Jeremy Stanbary. Olivia Lundsten does some neat effects with her lighting design using light to create the vision Serenelli sees in his prison cell and giving us the shadow of bars on the ground to emphasize that he is caged, as there are several moments of dialogue that refer to people as either not being animals or being nothing more than an animal.

Mercy Unrelenting runs through March 26th at Open Window Theatre in Inver Grove Heights for more information and to purchase tickets go to

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