Grief is complicated.
When Pulitzer finalist Sarah Ruhl met Max Ritvo, a young poet, in her playwriting workshop at Yale University, it didn’t take long for their mentor/mentee relationship to reverse. Ritvo, who had been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma at 16, experienced a recurrence of the cancerous tumors that semester, and the pair were soon sharing a thread of correspondence, tracking Ritvo’s struggles with anticipatory grief and mortality. As the cancer turned metastatic, Ritvo pushed forward, graduating from Yale as he prepared to pursue his Master’s at Columbia, and getting married along the way. In Ritvo, Ruhl found a like spirit who inexorably wormed his way into her heart, bursting with vitality and an exuberance for life that could not be denied.
When Ritvo passed away at only 25, Ruhl retreated into her grief before emerging with a thread of an idea they had discussed during his cancer treatment: Letters from Max, first a book and now a play, that collects their correspondence into a startlingly vivid reflection on life, art, and the concept of the afterlife. For every guiding letter Ruhl sent, Ritvo responded in kind, and with their years of communication laid out, a pattern of mutual teaching became clear. Both emboldened by the power of language, their personal correspondence was equal parts instructive and inspiring, dripping with delicate turns of phrase that would, from the pen of any other writers, been the result of hours of contemplation rather than a quickly fired off text.
Letters from Max: a ritual, now premiering onstage at Signature Theatre through March 19, introduces a new layer to the two-person correspondence: an ever-present angel, perhaps of death, but more likely of creation itself. Two actors, Ben Edelman and Zane Pais, rotate between the roles of Max and the Angel, oscillating between the dying man, and the supernatural force that rarely leaves his side.
The pair perform opposite Jessica Hecht as Ruhl, with the text of the piece belonging to Ritvo and Ruhl as the Angel observes, often underscoring the play with music composed by both Edelman and Pais. The delicate balance of the core relationship could have been upended by the addition of a third body, but instead, it has deepened the collaboration.
“They always wanted another body on stage,” Zane Pais explains, reserved yet eloquent. Of the two Max’s, he has been attached to the play for the longest stretch of time, since development began. “They were originally going to hire someone like a modern dancer, not an alternate, but they decided to see what we could create together.” While the play was originally written to be a two-hander, it didn’t take long in the rehearsal room for the two characters + specter setup to morph into a trio. “We’re all creating the fabric of this thing together… this isn’t a one and two thing, but true collaboration” Ben Edelman details.
While the core text of the play remains unchanged between performances, each actor brings a different nuanced truth to the fore as Max: with Pais, a grounded steadiness pervades the room, but that surety transforms into bombastic energy in Edelman’s hands. Opposite Hecht as Sarah, the vibrancy of the differences in each interpretation is equally reflected in their devised underscoring. “Ben is classically trained in piano, and I am self-taught at guitar,” Pais smiles. “What Ben plays is very grand, and very beautiful: my guitar playing is a lot more primitive. My music sounds almost uniquely American, whereas Ben’s piano playing is very classical European.”
For Edelman, composing the underscoring was a way of re-centering himself through the tumultuous upheaval of playing Max at the end of his life; “When I was a little kid, there was a grand piano in my house. When I was sad, I would sit and play music, and it would make me feel better. Over the years, it became meditative, and when I sat down in the rehearsal room to play, it was exactly like I did when I was a kid. I wasn’t trying to show off or anything, I just needed to feel better after a scene.”
Throughout the play, Max processes his feelings around death through his poetry and correspondence with Sarah. Playing through that loss every night is no easy feat, so it's no wonder Pais and Edelman need something to lean on, be it meditative music or their working relationship with Hecht. They are also both grateful to have Max’s poetry to soothe their souls, even as it opens their eyes.
“’Good grief’ has been a tremendous part of this process for me, and is something I reflect on,” Edelman explains. “What does it mean to grieve, when you really contemplate death directly?”
Pais leans forward, elaborating. “There are so many cultures in the world where collective grieving is commonplace, but in America, our grieving process is incredibly personalized. It is almost gauche to be seen grieving. Sarah has created a unique little biosphere in this play, where people are invited to grieve together.”
It isn’t uncommon for either actor to look out upon the audience, and witness theatergoers sobbing as they process their own loss alongside Ruhl’s. Outside the theatre doors, small tables have been set up with paper, envelopes, pens, and copies of Ruhl’s haiku’s, urging audience members to write to someone they love before it’s too late; the production then mails them on the writer's behalf.
“Grieving is a process, and there is something to be said about the expression ‘good grief,’” says Edelman. ”Letting go is sad, but it can also be the Charlie Brown of it all, where grief becomes something funny and light. Grief is not just gloom.”
In many ways, this approach to grief is a continuation of Ruhl’s examination of the concepts of insulation and isolation: almost all of her work explores disconnect, be it Catherine’s insulation from intimacy in In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), or Becky’s isolation from community in Becky Nurse of Salem (which played Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center earlier this season). How we attempt to insulate those we love from our pain, and the isolating sensation of loss, are at the forefront of Letters from Max.
Both Pais and Edelman have bonded with Ruhl throughout the development process, although she has cautioned both them and Hecht against feeling like they’re having to ‘be’ the real Max and Sarah, versus approaching the text as they would any other play. The truth of the text has clearly been an effecting experience for both Edelman and Pais; while neither are professional poets, the poetry of the piece has enveloped them both.
As Edelman puts it, “Max still lives, in a way, through his poetry… When we talk about poetry, we're talking about the structure of our thoughts. We're all poets in our own lives… Max left us so many poems, it’s like he’s still connected to us, even if he’s physically gone. His poetry continues to live.”
Letters from Max: a ritual opens Off-Broadway February 27 at Signature Theatre, and will run through March 19.