Sunday, March 5, 2023

My Review of Letters From Max is up: I loved it.

Letters From Max: A Glimpse Into The Heart

Sarah Ruhl’s new play, Letters From Max, is not a traditional type of play that is the style today. That isn’t to say it is bad, in fact just the opposite, it is wonderful. But it does take a bit to get into the play.

It is a simple story, deceptively simple. Letters From Max is an adaption of their book, Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship. And in the beginning, it seems indulgent. Letters From Max is the story of a writing teacher, author Sara Ruhl, and Max, a student in love with words and poetry.

Because Sara Ruhl is the play’s author AND one of the two characters, you question her accounting and memory. She is the strong woman who is a mentor and steps up to be a glorious friend to Max. But the audience's acceptance of  Ruhl as the perfect mentor is hesitant at first.

However, Letters From Max slowly moves from seeming a self-satisfied look back into a more complete understanding of Max and of Ms. Ruhl’s love and admiration for each other. Max’s mind formulates words and poetry as instinctively as breathing. Max cannot speak or write without falling back on words as an expression of his very being. It is a passion we all have, but Max can use this passion to bring to life his art.

Jessica Hecht plays Sarah. The role of Max is switched between Ben Edelman and Zane Paris, with the non-performer playing music and seamlessly delivering and removing props and business. I saw Zane Paris as Max and he was mesmerizing. Paris’ Max was strung with energy of a puppy, playing and testing his limits.

Jessica Hecht and Zane Paris (credit Joan Marcus)

Max applies for a spot in Ruhl’s class for playwrights, even though he has never written a play. After Sarh reads his application, she spots potential. And she justifies this unusual decision in dialog. As she explains why she allowed Max in. “Because funny poets are my favorite kind of human being.”

And both Max’s and Ruhl’s the words are near transcendent. In Letters From Max poetry and expository are the characters' lifeblood. And they are a matched pair. Both Max and Sarah find comfort in their writing, their poetry, and their platonic love of each other. They seem to understand each other beyond the limitations of themselves. Together they bring to life the beauty of the world and themselves.

But Max, very early and very clearly, is sick. Sick with cancer, which he handles bravely. In letters and occasional visits Sarah keeps Max’s spirit up. Cancer ultimately claims Ben as his thoughts and words are the last of him to succumb.

Letters From Max is beautifully crafted piece. It is crafted for those with a love of words. Both characters speak their poems occasionally, as a projection of the words are displayed on the stage. The cadence and artistry of the poems are rendered stark as the emotions of the artists convey.

There is a scene, a small break early, as a series of stills is projected onto a wall. It is a physical representation of the very early revolving stills. That contraption that first tricked our mind into seeing movement over a century ago. But, once dissected apart, each panel is both individual and part of the overall whole. It is a metaphor that encapsulates the characters perfectly, self aware without being self indulgent.

Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman (credit Joan Marcus)

Letters From Max ends with his death, which is not a spoiler, it is obvious early on. But his words live on in his work and in the book which Sarah Ruhl created from their exchange. Each exchange is charged with love and heartbreak. And Letters From Max brings that love and heartbreak to the audience.

I have never been much of a poet fan. That changed a bit with the gorgeous poems of Amanda Gordon, touching, poignant, and hopeful all at the same time. Letters From Max makes we want to dig a bit deeper.

Director Kate Whoriskey is in love with words as well. She sets the tempo of the play and underlines it with hints of music and light. It is a deeply moving piece.

Letters From Max
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl | Director: Kate Whoriskey | Cast: Jessica Hecht, Zane Paris, Ben Edelman

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