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Theatre in Review: Letters from Max, a ritual (Signature Theatre Company)

Jessica Hecht, Ben Edelman. Photo: Joan Marcus

It's not the length of one's life that counts; it's the intensity with which it is lived; that's the idea behind Letters from Max, Sarah Ruhl's deeply personal memoir of the late poet Max Ritvo. Before his death at 25, Ritvo was cited by none other than Helen Vendler for his "ecstatic originality;" she also compared him to Keats, perhaps for obvious reasons. Ritvo's undergraduate experience with Ruhl led to a friendship that lasted through the remainder of his cruelly short time. This is the story of a teacher-student relationship that becomes a profound meeting of the minds, often expressed in luxuriously written letters, a metaphysical conversation conducted in the lengthening shadow of death.

Ruhl's two-hander would probably be moving under any circumstances; with Jessica Hecht standing in for her, the production effortlessly becomes luminous. Interestingly, director Kate Whoriskey has gambled on casting two rising young actors, Zane Pais and Ben Edelman, who alternate in the role of Max, each of whom takes a strikingly different approach to the role.

Hecht, with her unparalleled skill at high comedy, renders Ruhl as one part cheerleader and one part den mother. She is instantly captivated by Max's letter of application in which he describes himself as a poet and a comedian -- a rare combination, to be sure -- but he really wins her over when he asks permission to skip her first class to catch a revival of Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach. Indeed, she is breathless with envy: "Nothing could have been more delightful to me than a student who had the foresight to book tickets to a difficult avant-garde theatrical epic."

Like almost everything in Letters from Max, this episode begins amusingly and ends with a poignant revelation. Scheduling his trip, Max adds, casually, that Einstein "is four hours long and I have to eat in a really regimented way to keep my weight up as a result of the chemotherapy I had in high school." A survivor of Ewing sarcoma, his digestive system has been ravaged by his treatments; at a luncheon meeting, Ruhl, who misses nothing, notes that, "Max slowly finished three spoonfuls of soup, then put his spoon down." Though he wears them lightly, daily life is filled with such challenges.

Max progresses to graduate school at Columbia, but his cancer returns and, trying a variety of medical approaches, his life becomes a race against time. He falls in love, marries, and struggles to get his first volume published while he still has the energy to work. His cancer, he notes with dismay, "keeps changing the terms of the contract." Despite enormous support from family and friends, he quietly admits, "Everything in my life, the fabric of my life itself, is dissolving."

And, as his health declines, he and Ruhl are driven to wrangle with the nature of life and death. Ruhl, a self-described "strange wandering Catholic former atheist Thomas Merton admirer who just took refuge in Buddhism," shares her closely argued belief in reincarnation. Max, a secular Jew, isn't necessarily having it, but the discussion brings some comfort. "I worry death is nothing," he says. "But it requires such a leap of faith to believe in nothing!" she insists. "We've never found nothing! No matter where I look, I can't find it! Emptiness maybe, nothing, never." Such questions only become more urgent as his body begins to fail him.

There are moments in Letters from Max when the relationship between Ruhl and her former pupil threatens to descend into a faintly cloying mutual admiration society. "I'm start to worry that my poetry is indulgent and insulated," he says. "Poetry by nature is insulated and indulgent," she replies. "Only some small degree of emotional restraint keeps it from being indulgent, and some small degree of sharing it with others keeps it from being insulated." Fair enough, but sometimes the logrolling feels a little intensive, especially when Ruhl and Ritvo are praising each other's works, or when Ruhl is thrilling to such locations as "theatrical onanism" and "lyric complicity." But Hecht is peerless throughout. She is especially delightful when making the audience her confidant, praising one of Max's poems, then quietly signaling to us her dislike of the final stanza, or trying not to be embarrassed when, standing up, he loudly reads a poem to her in a restaurant. And her unsentimental approach to the darkness gathering around Max is deeply moving.

Hecht also develops a profound connection with each of her co-stars. Edelman, with his rightly coiled physical presence and cheeky, daft sense of humor, may come closer to the self-described "spry frizzy pipe cleaner" that Ritvo was in real life. On the other hand, Pais' more stoic approach makes a lot of sense -- Max has been living for grave illness for most of his life -- and his slow fading away is surprisingly moving. His readings of Ritvo's poems are notably lucid. Then again, Edelman brings an extraordinary intensity of thought to many moments, for example, when he wakes up in bed, seeing that his wife has turned away from him in her sleep. "I felt myself," he says, "and the collar bones spiked up and where she'd rest her cheek was ribs. Who wants to cuddle a skeleton?" Whichever actor you see, you aren't likely to be disappointed.

Whoriskey's team has also come up with a production design that is pleasingly delicate and flexible. Marsha Ginsberg's all-white set features a circular pavilion at center stage that spins open to reveal Max in various locations, usually hospitals. The curved wall has slits cut into it; when S. Katy Tucker projects multiple images onto it as it moves, it looks strangely like a giant Zoetrope. Tucker has done unusually beautiful work here, including winged imagery, abstract color combinations, a composition placing handwritten text in a starry sky, and a backdrop out of The Flintstones. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, which features some effectively moody saturated color looks, also works seamlessly with the projections. Anita Yavich's costumes are appropriate and attractive for all three performers. (Whichever actor is not playing Max at a given show is on hand as a kind of stage manager, moving scenery, playing the piano or guitar, and generally making himself useful.) Sinan Refik Zafar's sound design includes well-chosen selections from Philip Glass, Edward Elgar, and Cyndi Lauper, in addition to discreet amplification when Max reads his poems.

Letters from Max is, necessarily, a tragic story but what impresses the most is the sense of acceptance that it cultivates. Ritvo's life should have been much longer, but he was well-loved and managed to do the writing that mattered so much to him. As for what came next, who can say? That's a matter of faith. It is interesting that Signature Theatre happens to be producing Letters from Max, which contemplates eternity and the mystery of existence, at the same time it is presenting Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, in which the protagonist, an evangelical obsessed with end-times theology, struggles with the irreducible complexities of contemporary life. These playwrights are wrestling with life's biggest questions, which is another way of saying they are doing their jobs. --David Barbour

(27 February 2023)

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