With cancer and death foremost on its agenda, Letters from Max, a ritual, presented by Necessary Angel, is surprisingly buoyant. Maev Beaty and Jesse LaVercombe bound eagerly onto The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni stage and—while things eventually do get solemn and grim—that transcendent exuberance remains constant, even in moments of quiet stillness.
Beaty and LaVercombe are Sarah and Max in this two-hander by Sarah Ruhl, based on her book with Max Ritvo, which documents their correspondence. Max first came into her life as a twenty-year-old student of her playwriting class. A poet and wise beyond his years (a trite phrase, though entirely resonant when you hear his words) he impresses her with his humour and insight. An intense friendship develops, charged with creative, philosophical electricity arcing up a storm between them.
It is such a joy to witness intelligent, literate, and compassionate artists feeding off each other. The inside jokes, the mutual admiration—it weaves a potent spell. Beaty and LaVercombe have a waggish and endearing dynamic. As Max’s cancer becomes a more urgent reality, the space for optimism dwindles, and there are deeply affecting moments when Beaty’s face trembles with her valiant attempt to hold back tears. Perhaps even more poignant: the awe and reverence in their playful eyes as they contemplate each other.
Minimalist and restrained, director Alan Dilworth fills the space between and around them with subtle yet abundant theatricality. This duo are inherently theatrical and their essential need to perform—for themselves, each other and us—is thoroughly felt. They stand at microphones during poetry recitations—truly beautiful, witty, emotive passages—and this synthetically amplified sound draws our attention to the mechanics of craft and the formality of performance—a ritual.
The back of the stage is a set of overlapping scrims, used very sparingly for projections. A roughly sketched staircase of increased luminosity as it ascends is a pivotal image. Speculation about an afterlife, of earthly concerns and how they relate to the possibility of spiritual continuance figures prominently in their discussions. Max’s pragmatic yet pliable disbelief and Sarah’s tentative, conjectural faith collide in poetic, existential fireworks. Death, God, Reincarnation, Consciousness, Love—all these grand ideas humanity has wrestled with for ages—seem fresh, urgent and vital because we care so deeply for the people unpacking them here.
Yes, cancer and death are downers, but this never feels bleak or gloomy. When Max articulates his precise and awful fear of dying, it is pained and haunting, of course, but there is such fierce and melancholic beauty in his words—in the person whose shape they delineate. The silent finale is a very stylized bit of payoff for an earlier set-up that feels sincere and entirely earned.
I lost someone important to me to cancer quite recently and this storyline feels very raw. It wasn’t just the nuance and restraint of the emotion here that really hit; their unguarded, unflinching and whimsical conversations were a genuine comfort to me. Letters From Max, a ritual, captures the bittersweet gift of being able to consciously appreciate limited time with a loved one. It is also a heartfelt tribute to friendship—and, ultimately, life—as an act of deliberate creation.