Necessary Angel Theatre Company/Letters From Max, a ritual, written by Sarah Ruhl, (based on the book by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo), directed by Alan Dilworth, Main Stage Theatre, The Theatre Centre, until Dec. 3. Tickets here.
Max Ritvo (1990 – 2016) was a gifted American poet who tragically died too young. As the 2020 Nobel Prize winner for literature, American poet Louise Glück said of him, “Max Ritvo sounds like no one else — this is the rarest of all possible gifts.”
Now, audiences can get to know Ritvo through his letters, emails and phone messages — and of course, his poems — in the Canadian premiere of Letters from Max, a ritual (2023), a play by esteemed American writer, Sarah Ruhl, which she adapted from her 2018 book, Letters from Max: A Poet, A Teacher, A Friendship.
First, it is important to understand the word “ritual” in the play’s title. I believe the play (and the original book) comprise Ruhl’s ritual of grief. Ritvo lives through his words, which keeps him still alive, and still bonded to Ruhl. It is a very public display of mourning, but a life-affirming one, or as the publicity says, “a play filled with love, laughter and light”.
The two first met in 2012, when, in his senior year at Yale, 20-year-old Ritvo became a student in Ruhl’s creative writing class. Initially, he had been rejected by Ruhl’s teaching assistant because he had never written a play. When Ruhl reread Ritvo’s application, she was enchanted by his description of himself as a poet with a sense of humour — or, as Ruhl tells us, her favourite kind of poet.
Almost immediately, Ritvo begins sending correspondence to Ruhl, who immediately understands that this student is unlike any other, and an unbelievable bond begins to develop, to the point where they even get close to each other’s families — Ritvo’s Israeli mother and his future wife, Victoria, and Ruhl’s doctor-husband Tony and her three young children.
At the very beginning of Letters From Max, we also learn that Ritvo suffers from cancer — Ewing’s sarcoma — a rare form of pediatric cancer that he first contracted when he was 16, and which has now reoccurred. Thus, we know that for the rest of the play, we are on a death watch.
In this two-hander, Ruhl has included minimal narration for her own character, played with grace and passion by Maev Beaty, to set the scene, to give us the context, as it were. In contrast to the quiet, charming, thoughtful Ruhl/Beaty, Ritvo’s brash, confident, clever, witty personality is manifested wonderfully in actor Jesse LaVercombe. The casting is perfection.
Letters From Max is a literary/literate play featuring two very bright people who engage in conversations about every topic imaginable, and in the most seductive way. This is a play of language, of delicious turns of phrase, of brilliantly constructed arguments. When we come to the recited poetry from both Ruhl and Ritvo, with more from the latter, we are in a world of images that stir the imagination.
But as Ritvo comes closer to death, the thoughts of both inevitably turn to the afterlife, which renders monumental cosmic musings from them both, and which gives the audience a great deal to think about. By the end of the play, Ruhl is thanking Ritvo for being her teacher.
Director Alan Dilworth has given both Beaty and LaVercome enough movement with chairs, tables and microphones across Michelle Tracey’s minimal set to prevent this epistolary play from becoming too static, but not enough busyness to take away from the text.
In truth, Letters From Max is a trifle self-indulgent, and a little precious, and maybe, one or two poems a bit too long. On the other hand, these two very vibrant and engaging people are worth a visit.
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