‘Letters From Max’: Life, Love and Loss Through a Playwright’s Eyes

In the world premiere of ‘Letters From Max’ at Signature Theatre, Sarah Ruhl illustrates her friendship with her former student Max Ritvo through a heartfelt collection of letters and poetry



“Letters From Max” limited run at the Signature Theatre concluded on March 26, 2023.


Content Warning: This article discusses cancer and death by terminal illness.

The lessons passed on from teachers to their students are often innumerable and invaluable. Every once in a while, there comes along a particularly special connection in which the roles reverse: The teacher learns something new as the student brings new light into the teacher’s life. This is the case in the Signature Theatre’s world premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “Letters From Max, a Ritual.” Originally published as a co-authored book of works in 2018, Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s collaborative book “Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship,” published after Ritvo’s passing, is a compilation of letters between the two, poetry and narrative from Ruhl’s end.

Ruhl has received the distinguished Spotlight Residency, a program for midcareer and established playwrights that supports three previously performed or new productions of their work as Signature shows. Ruhl’s residency serves as another notable accomplishment in her career, already having won the MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the “Genius Grant” in 2006. “Letters From Max” is Ruhl’s debut piece for her residency. With a cast of three characters, the stage feels alive as all design elements — scenic, lighting, costumes, props, sound and projections — come into play.

The play follows the beginning of Ruhl and Ritvo’s mentorship-relationship, which quickly morphs into a deep friendship and soul-connection. Ritvo signed up for Ruhl’s playwriting class at Yale University but was turned away, having his application put in the “no” pile, as he had never written a play before. His insistent email to Ruhl, stating “All I want to do is write,” caught the attention of the playwright and she moved his application into the “yes” pile. Ruhl writes, “It’s hard to imagine now that Max’s application could have ever remained in any other pile — a strange parallel universe in which I never met Max.”

The first watch hits like a gut punch. The second watch allows for the material to sink into your skin.

Performed in two acts with an intermission, the show chronicles Ritvo’s time as Ruhl’s student as he undergoes intense treatment for his Ewing’s sarcoma. The audience gets to witness their relationship grow and change as Ritvo gets accepted to graduate school, gets married and gets his first manuscript of poetry, “Four Reincarnations,” published. Ritvo passed away from his illness in 2016.

Ruhl still sees him in her dreams. The heartbreaking final scene chronicles a dream in which she talked to Max, in which he urged her to continue on, despite her grief. Ruhl writes, “Finally, I had another dream of Max. He told me: ‘Say hello to my mother.’ So I did. Then, he told me: ‘Life is swaying, go back to life.’ And so I did.”

Emmy nominee Jessica Hecht takes on the role of the playwright as she captures Ruhl’s mannerisms and style of voice effortlessly. Handing off the performance of Max Ritvo each evening, both Ben Edelman and Zane Pais (“Modern Love”) bring his legacy to the stage as they transform into one of the most important people in Ruhl’s life. This choice to double cast brings about a conversation of equitable dynamics among actors when playing an emotionally taxing role and also the feeling that Ritvo’s spirit lives in so many artists. Theatrical performances operate on an eight-shows-a-week schedule, often exhausting the human body. With this casting choice, Signature Theatre is not only encouraging collaboration but also taking care of their artists. 

All three actors are onstage every night. When asked about the collaboration among both actors playing Max, Pais told PlayBill that, “They were originally going to hire someone like a modern dancer, not an alternate, but they decided to see what we could create together.” There is now a level of community built within a play only meant for two people, a portal opened to new interpretations for each actor in their portrayal of Ritvo. 

When Edelman assumes the role of Max, Pais then acts as the angel, moving set pieces and facilitating costume changes through stylized movement choreography. He also plays the guitar for the show’s scoring. Likewise, when Pais takes on the role of Max, Edelman adopts similar movements and plays piano for the show’s scoring. 

One of the most impactful segments of the show is when the two actors get to interact in a movement sequence. Hecht as Ruhl narrates a play that Max had written about a sick boy and an angel tattoo artist. In the sequence, the actor playing Max wears a hospital gown that gets removed swiftly by the actor playing the angel, revealing a string of bird tattoos on the actor playing Max, each one representing a period of cancer treatment. 

I have had the absolute privilege of seeing this show twice now at its run at Signature. Yes, it’s that good that you have to see it twice. The first watch hits like a gut punch. The second watch allows for the material to sink into your skin.

In “Letters From Max,” Ruhl asks her audience to examine the meaning of life and the necessity to connect with one another. She also highlights the unfair cards people like Ritvo have been dealt. One of the most heartbreaking points of the show comes in a conversation between Ruhl and Ritvo as he exclaims, “I’m so bitter. I love the world. And it doesn’t love me back.”

Ruhl and Ritvo paint a beautiful landscape onstage through their words as they eat soup in a hospital waiting room, text back and forth between the distance of a doctor’s office and the Amtrak quiet car, and celebrate first love at Max’s wedding. 

Ruhl emphasizes that love and understanding between two humans may be the most powerful tool we have in this world — along with a good bowl of soup. 

“Letters From Max” limited run at the Signature Theatre concluded on March 26, 2023.