By David Walters
“Even present tense has some of the grace of past tense, what with all the present tense left to go.” MR
Max Ritvo (MR) found his way into Sarah Ruhl’s playwriting class at Yale because he was a poet and funny. From the day he walked into her classroom there began a teacher-student, student-teacher relationship that continued to his death from cancer in 2016. They corresponded through letters, text, phone calls, and visits, exchanging support, reflections on life, death, writing, poetry, and developed a friendship that seemed to have roots beyond the present tense of the relationship.
Ms. Ruhl is currently in residence at Signature Theatre and Letters From Max, a ritual is the first of her plays that Signature is presenting. A good choice as it is so personal, not only revealing Max’s struggles with writing, his life and disease, but Ms. Ruhl’s deeper understanding of herself as she corresponds with him. This play is a window into the soul of poetry and creativity.
The play is adapted from the 336-page book Letters from Max: a Poet, a Teacher, and a Friendship which was published in 2018. The book is a chronology of the correspondence between Ruhl and Ritvo.
The set is a large pleasing powder blue wall that doubles as a projection screen backing up the poetry of the script with images of water, birds, trees, and other sometimes nefarious images. There are a couple of chairs and a revolving curved room that exposes other spaces (hospital, bedroom, other theatres) and the physical distance between Ms. Ruhl and Max as they exchange letters. There is also a piano on stage that may or may not get used depending on what night you go. You will see either Ben Edelman or Zane Pais as Max. They both did so well in the initial auditions that the director, Kate Whoriskey and Ms. Ruhl decided to have them switch off the roll and introduce an angel-stage manager-tattoo artist-musician third character. Mr. Edelman plays the piano and Mr. Pais plays the guitar (they both composed music for the show), so depending on which actor you see, the accompanying music will be different. It’s a lovely touch that expands the visual, the audio, what is personal art, and something that only theatre can provide.
Ms. Ruhl is played by Jessica Hecht who, from the opening line, plants the play solid on the stage and gives to the audience a strong guiding hand to grasp on the journey that we all take together.
Ruhl, was a poet before she became a playwright, and, in her writing, she often asks herself, “How much poetry can an evening of theater sustain?” The answer is, a full one.
If, after the show, you’d like to write a letter to someone, Signature is providing paper, pens, envelopes, and postage at the tables outside the venue. A nice touch.
As always, this is just one person’s opinion in a world filled with them.