In calling her new play Letters from Max, a ritual, Sarah Ruhl positions it in a liminal space: both private correspondence and public performance; both fictional narrative and documentary; both a story of the past and a shared experience of the present. And while in some way every live performance mimics a ritual, moving in prescribed rhythms before a different audience each night, the explicitness with which Ruhl claims that title makes it irrelevant, in a way, what I or any other critic thinks of it. Its purpose is to be experienced, not analyzed; one would not presume to do literary critique of a eulogy, nor to give performance notes to a wedding officiant. And because the story is so irretrievably personal to her, woven from her letters and her dreams, to interrogate the writing feels uncomfortably like casting judgment on the real-life mentorship/friendship out of which the play grew, or even criticizing the person of the playwright, who appears here as one of the two characters. But in calling the play “a ritual,” Ruhl isn’t trying to insulate herself, but rather to expose her own emotions in order to grapple with her grief: to state baldly that she is grieving, to offer up her own sorrow as an act of in the human rather than the divine, even as much of the play’s content circles questions of faith and belief about the afterlife.
The play is adapted from the 2018 book Letters from Max, which compiled the correspondence of Ruhl and the poet Max Ritvo, who was her student, then her friend, then her teacher, and who died in 2016. (“I am not the only one of his teachers who learned profoundly from Max; he taught me about writing, about how to live, and how to die,” she writes in a program note.) Ruhl and Ritvo knew each other for roughly four years, sharing a deep intellectual communion and a joyous affection of like mind calling to like mind. Even the lightest and simplest of the letters show the two writers as similarly in love with the possibilities and suppleness of language; the poems of both Ritvo’s and Ruhl’s that are embedded in the script are juicy little morsels to savor. In remission from Ewing sarcoma as a Yale undergraduate, Ritvo got the first bad news about his cancer’s recurrence shortly after meeting Ruhl. Over the course of the play, Max graduates from college, enters an MFA program in poetry, falls in love and marries, and has a book accepted for publication, hitting all of these life milestones while his health prognosis grows ever more dire. (No character other than Sarah and Max appears in the play, but you feel the web of relations in which each is enmeshed in the way they write about their families.)
Sarah, whose father died of cancer when she was about Max’s age, who is the mother of three young children with a busy teaching schedule and playwriting career, sees a kindred soul in Max the moment that he confesses that he needs to leave the first session of her playwriting workshop early to go see Einstein on the Beach at BAM. Their correspondence begins at that moment and continues–in text messages, emails, letters, phone calls, shares poems–that discuss both the mundane and the sublime, always circling around the possibility, then the imminence, of death. The book stands on its own; whether this material is itself best served by also becoming a play is almost beside the point; Ruhl, despite recent success as a writer of prose is first and foremost a playwright and she needed to continue working through this story in this medium. She needed to keep hold of an embodied Max, a Max in the forever present tense of theater; as she says in a program note, “It gives me comfort to think of Max speaking in the present tense, in the body of a young man.”
And Max is doubly embodied here; two actors (Zane Pais and Ben Edelman; I saw Pais) alternate in the speaking role, with the other also onstage as an accompanist and amanuensis. (Pais, Edelman, and sound designer Sinan Refik Zafar composed the music, with one piece written by Ritvo, who was also a musician; since Pais was performing Max, I heard Edelman’s music.) The third presence—who in addition to playing music, steps in briefly in nonspeaking roles, including an angel/tattoo artist from a play Max wrote–lingers on the periphery, a ghostly double for Max who seems somehow always in communion with him. He is the soul–or the body?–that remains once Max is gone. And this double embodiment of situating Max in a healthy body, one that doesn’t lose his voice to the tumors in Max’s throat; one that can speak and move and dance; one that can remake itself every time the play is performance–that feels in itself like an act of ritual healing.
The Sarah presented by the play is full of emotional generosity, often bemused by the challenges of her own life, but trying to match Max’s openness with her own, and not to burden him with her troubles. Which can make her a little opaque; in aspiring to be for Max “one person in your life who you do not have to comfort through your illness,” Sarah must hide some of what she feels. Jessica Hecht gives her a feathery, wry self-awareness, with an keen eye for her own foibles. In the parenthetical moments of almost addressing the audience, we sometimes see more of her tenderness or her terror.
Kate Whoriskey’s direction keeps Sarah and Max circling each other with almost a magnetic pull, but rarely touching; we feel the asynchronous distance of the correspondence even when the words are transformed back into the present tense of dialogue. Stunning visual elements, particularly Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and S Katy Tucker’s projections, bring the wonder of poetry into the space, even as the vaguely sinister column/room/sometime zoetrope in the middle of Marsha Ginsberg’s set never lets us forget the earthbound reality of confinement and medicine.
Ruhl writes, “The play arrives in a moment suffused with illness, with a dearth of outlets for confronting mass grief.” I don’t know if this very personal, in some ways very private, act of revivification works as the collective ritual Ruhl wants it to be. (I think, for example, of What to Send Up When It Goes Down, another type of ritual that more explicitly engaged its audience in its rite.) Maybe we all need to build our own.
But as I saw the most extraordinary moon from the train on my way home from Letters from Max, I thought of this line from one of his poems: I will soon have none / of the ways earth plays / along with the soul: / no grass, no wind. I too will now carry Max with me.