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'Letters from Max: a ritual' by Sarah Ruhl Canadian premiere

Produced by Necessary Angel Theatre Company now onstage at The Theatre Centre

Dahlia Katz. L-R: Jesse LaVercombe and Maev Beaty

Joe Szekeres

A VOICE CHOICE for confronting death head-on and understanding it is not the end of the human spirit.

“Sarah Ruhl’s script is an unquestionable celebration of life, love, and the soul. Beaty and LaVercombe radiate tremendous dignity in delivering credible and emotional performances.”

Twenty-year-old Max Ritvo (Jesse LaVercombe) applies to be in playwright Sarah Ruhl's (Maev Beaty) undergraduate writing program. As the story progresses, the two characters exchange correspondence in various formats. What begins as a formal introduction from the polite young man gives way to a ceremonial development of respectful friendship and mentorship between professor and student, ultimately put to the test. Max reveals he had Ewing sarcoma cancer when he was in his teens. It has returned while he pursues his studies with Ruhl.

Ruhl’s poetic script is akin to A. R. Gurney’s 1989 epistolary two-hander ‘Love Letters,’ where reading letters, cards, notes, and in-person encounters denote the passage of time. The same occurs in ‘Max,’ with a slight difference. Sarah narrates most of the story. Emails and text messages have now been added for a twenty-first-century audience. Both scripts have moments of laughter, poignancy, resiliency, and tears.

Personal feelings aside, does ‘Letters from Max: a ritual’ work objectively as a piece of theatre?

Yes, it does, and that’s why it’s a Voice Choice.

It’s hard to separate the subjective from the objective this time. As both a cancer survivor and someone who lost a younger sibling to the disease, it’s a time in life that can never, ever, be forgotten or erased. A great deal of the impact of Max’s dialogue showcases that fact. There are profound moments when all that Sarah can do is either listen attentively to Max or simply just hold his hand and be there.

Beaty and LaVercombe handle these quiet moments nobly, honorably, and decently.

Michelle Tracey and Aurora Judge visually create an appropriate and functionally simple set design. Two tables at opposite ends of the stage contain a variety of props that will be used throughout the performance. Chairs and microphone stands are sometimes brought to the centre stage playing area with a fluidity of ease by Beaty and LaVercombe. Debashis Sinha’s Sound Design never overpowers but adds flavourful interest at a given moment. For example, Max asks Sarah to stand while he reads a poem to her aloud. We hear the muted sound of the clinking sounds of a coffee shop that eventually subsides as Max’s voice rises as he speaks. At the same time, Sarah slumps slightly because she feels she has become the centre of attention momentarily. It was a perfectly timed comic moment that made me laugh out loud.

Tracey and Judge’s costume designs effectively reveal much about the characters. Max is described as mysteriously luminous. From where I sat in the house, LaVercombe appeared to be sporting green nail polish on his fingers and a green scarf around his neck. He also wears a white shirt and what appears to be a teal-green-looking shirt underneath earth-tone pants.

Combined with Rebecca Picherack’s apt Lighting Design, there are moments when LaVercombe appears to radiate a life-giving, soul-affirming presence that becomes mysteriously inexplicable. For those who have lost loved ones to cancer and have been nearby when death is near, Picherack’s light makes perfect sense. There are bright life colours of green and yellow in Maev’s top underneath the earth-tone colour of her sweater. These colours and her navy-blue slacks offer an eye-catching juxtaposition to LaVercombe’s visual, metaphysical look.

Alan Dilworth directs the Canadian premiere with absolute compassion and respect for the ritual and existential life-affirming subject material. Beaty and LaVercombe radiate tremendous dignity in their respective performances. Their onstage work cuts right to the muscle memory of that open wound disease that never wholly heals or goes away. It leaves an indelibly marked scar.

Beaty and LaVercombe remain firmly committed and deeply rooted in each moment of the two hours plus running time. These are two actors who are at the top of their game. They give credence to each being alive and present in the moment. They listen intently to each other. They respond naturally and convincingly. Their dance, choreographed by Monica Dottor, duly reinforces once again the life-affirming presence in each of us. The two of them dance and move for the sheer enjoyment of the moment that can never be recaptured again.

That’s the ritual.

In a recent interview with Maev, she says the words of ‘Max’ are transformative – they’re medicine and holy.

She’s correct on this account.

The end of the First Act remains especially compelling when Beaty, as Sarah, writes a lengthy letter to Max. LaVercombe remains in slight shadows upstage but watches and listens as Beaty is at a microphone reading the letter she has written as Sarah. Her work remains sublime in both sight and sound. She pauses when necessary, emphasizing words and syllables while maintaining a stoic composure in uttering those three words each of us longs to hear from another person – “I love you.”

I dare anyone not to be moved to tears.

As LaVercombe gingerly creeps to the chaise lounge assisted by Maev in the second act, there is a heartbreaking moment that the end is near for the young man. When he finally sits, he exhales with contentment. When Max, in his fading, raspy voice, begins to read the poem aloud to a gathering, he can’t continue because he’s exhausted. He then asks Sarah to continue. Silence enveloped the auditorium on this opening night out of sheer believable respect for what was happening on stage. Again, I’m speechless and bereft of words as the emotional impact hits hard and deep.

Final Comments: The concept of letter writing appears to be lost today in the twenty-first century's immediate satisfaction of “I want it, and I want it now.” A handwritten card, note, or letter means far more when it arrives in the post. A. R. Gurney’s 30+-year-old ‘Love Letters’ started me on the joy I experience when I receive a handwritten note, card, or even an email where I can sense the humanity of the sender.

Thank you to the artistic team and actors for sending me ‘Letters from Max, a ritual’ and reminding me and everyone to notice that we are all alive.

That is a beautiful gift.

Running time: approximately two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

‘Letters from Max, a ritual’ runs to December 3 in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. For tickets, or call (416) 703-0406.

To learn more about Necessary Angel Theatre Company, visit

NECESSARY ANGEL presents the Canadian premiere of ‘Letters from Max, a ritual’ by Sarah Ruhl
Based on the book by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo

Directed by Alan Dilworth
Set and Costume Designer: Michelle Tracey
Set, Props and Costume Design Assistant: Aurora Judge
Lighting Designer: Rebecca Picherack
Sound Designer: Debashis Sinha
Choreographer: Monica Dottor
Stage Manager: Scarlett Larry
Production Manager and Technical Director: Rick Banville

Performers: Maev Beaty, Jesse LaVercombe

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