With 'Letters From Max' onstage, Sarah Ruhl again mourns a poet's death

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With 'Letters From Max' onstage, Sarah Ruhl again mourns a poet's death
Jessica Hecht and Zane Pais during a rehearsal of “Letters From Max, a Ritual” at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York, on Feb. 10, 2023. With “Letters From Max, a Ritual” Sarah Ruhl again mourns a poet’s death; through dialogue, poetry and ritual, the playwright revisits her correspondence with her former student, who died at the age of 25. (Ye Fan/The New York Times)

by Kate Dwyer

NEW YORK, NY.- About 10 minutes into “Letters From Max, a Ritual,” Sarah Ruhl’s new play about her epistolary friendship with poet Max Ritvo, something akin to a sacred rite takes place: The lights dim, a spotlight illuminates center stage, and the actor portraying Ritvo walks toward a winged tattoo artist. For a few moments, they circle each other. Then the tattoo artist-angel removes the hospital gown that the poet is wearing and lifts him with grace. With a miming gesture, he offers a compact mirror to Ritvo so he might examine the birds newly adorning his back.

“It’s dope,” Ritvo says of the tattoo, looking over his shoulder. “I really love it in this light.”

But that quiet exchange was not dreamed up by Ruhl. It is actually a scene from a play that Ritvo wrote for Ruhl when he was a student at Yale in 2012, four years before he died of cancer at age 25. (After each surgery, he would acquire a new tattoo of a bird.) Before handing in the project, he told Ruhl, “I am adamant that something extravagant and silent happen.”

With the Signature Theater production of “Letters From Max,” his desire for the work is now being realized in a way he might not have imagined.

Ruhl’s play, adapted from a book she compiled of their correspondence during Ritvo’s chemotherapy, boils down to a single, yearslong conversation about poetry, love, mortality, the afterlife and soup. But this is not a traditional play. Poems and live music are interspersed between the dialogue, which comes from the letters, texts and voice mail messages they exchanged.

“I don’t think of this play as ‘show business,’” Ruhl said in an interview, “but instead an encounter for the audience.” She hopes viewers will “bring their own grief or their own need for communal sadness,” she said, adding that the theater has been a place for catharsis dating back to the Greeks. “We’ve all been through so much in the last two years.”

Though Ruhl feels her own grief in this production, which opens on Feb. 27, she has also found joy in sharing Ritvo’s work, and in seeing it move people the same way he did. “He was such a present, joyful person who made everyone around him laugh,” she said. There are other small tributes to Ritvo, too: A song he composed recurs throughout, and the titles of his poems are projected in his handwriting above the stage.

There were no plans to adapt “Letters From Max” upon the book’s 2018 publication. But as Ruhl read sections at events — often with an actor reading Ritvo’s words — people asked, “Is this going to be a play?”

Before distilling the 309-page book into a two-hour stage production, Ruhl consulted Ritvo’s literary executor, poet Elizabeth Metzger.

“She asked me long ago, ‘Do you think Max would want this?’” Metzger recalled, adding that she was “very, very certain that Max would.” For Ruhl, finding “the bones” within hundreds of pages of correspondence became a process of trial and error.

She realized the first act is “about a teacher and a student getting to know each other and forming a friendship,” she said, “that would then reverse the teacher-student relationship” in the second act, which opens with a dialectic on the afterlife. “I was trying to offer Max a comforting view of the afterlife when he was afraid of death,” Ruhl said. “And he ultimately said, ‘Thank you. But no.’”

Kate Whoriskey, who directed the New York production of Ruhl’s previous epistolary play, “Dear Elizabeth,” also about two poets exchanging letters, signed on to direct, and actress Jessica Hecht was game to portray Ruhl, her longtime friend and collaborator. But casting Ritvo introduced a unique challenge. “I’m definitely sensitive to the fact that he had a huge reach and people are still in mourning,” Ruhl said.

She said she was moved during auditions. “It was actually beautiful to see Max’s language inside a young person’s body again,” Ruhl said.

Ruhl and Whoriskey liked the idea of a third body onstage — similar to the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” — who might “care-take the space” by delivering soup and poems to Ruhl and Ritvo. When actors Ben Edelman and Zane Pais read for the role of Ritvo, Ruhl said, the team believed they “could do beautifully in both roles” by alternating nights. It turned out that Edelman plays the piano and Pais plays the guitar, so each composed music to perform while the other recites Ritvo’s poetry.

“There’s some mystery, and it’s beyond words,” Ruhl said of the duality. “But it’s something about the spirit and the body, and the observer and the observed.” Not to mention, as Ruhl writes in the program note, the actors’ interchangeability demonstrates that Ritvo’s spirit and legacy is “bigger than any one actor.”

“Max was many himself,” Metzger said. “Every time he read a poem, he read it differently, because he allowed the moment of the poem and the moment he was reading to merge.”

When rehearsals began, Metzger texted Ruhl some guidance for the actors: “Reading the letters, the character is coming to face death,” she wrote, but “reading the poems, the character is not dying but being born, coming to life!” Metzger hoped the actors might “capture the shock of Max’s performance style, even the strange wild aliveness of the poems on the page.”

Ritvo’s mother, Riva Ariella Ritvo, has been “an incredibly staunch supporter,” Edelman said, calling a video meeting she had with the cast members “one of the most intense experiences of my life.”

He and Pais didn’t study Ritvo’s mannerisms. Instead, they aimed to embody his work. “Neither of us are trying to do an impersonation of Max at all,” Pais said.

To foreground the writing, scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg kept the stage spare. The sole set piece is a white zoetrope that rotates to reveal scenes inside Ritvo’s childhood home, hospital rooms and the 13th Street Repertory Theater, where he accepted the 2014 Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America while wearing a pink kimono. At one point, during a silent sequence, the outside of the zoetrope becomes the window of an Amtrak quiet car. “We were trying to create a world where imaginative scapes could happen,” Whoriskey said. “So that a poem happens, and then suddenly, you’re seeing skeletons across a bridge, or a poem happens, and you’re seeing the shimmering of water.”

Hecht didn’t work through the emotional arc of Ruhl’s character until the week before previews began. Though it’s easy to cry on command, she said, “I felt embarrassed to do that before we lived through the play for a while, and I really felt the weight of that story and that person coming into our lives.”

For the past 30 years, Ruhl said, she has carried on an “intense” dialogue on life and art with Paula Vogel, her former professor. “When I met Max, it felt like he was one of those people that I would have that kind of dialogue with, had he lived that long,” she said. “It’s a comet-like thing. You might only meet those people once every … how often do comets circle?”

Perhaps Ritvo made such an impact because he valued relationships. “He’s not a poet who just went inward and was exploring his own self and soul. It was always about talking to another person in a room,” Metzger said. “It was happening all the time, these little births and deaths of just being with a person in a room. I think that’s why he had so much intimacy with so many people. I’ve never met someone with as capacious of a soul.”

When Ruhl attended the first preview performance of “Letters From Max, a Ritual” this month, she could finally observe “how the humor landed,” how the emotional beats played out, and how Ritvo’s poetry “theatrically holds an audience.”

But it wasn’t until intermission that the project came full circle. As part of the play’s “ritual,” she said, audience members sat at tables in the lobby to write letters to loved ones. A young woman approached Ruhl with an envelope addressed to her. The playwright opened it and drew out a note reading: “I have incurable brain cancer. And this production gave me hope.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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