Uncle Vanya brings laughter from the shadows

Anthony F. Ingram delves into the black humour of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and finds hope in his own dark chapters
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When Anton Chekhov’s tragic and hopeless Uncle Vanya is the role you feel “born to play”, your Christmas list is pretty much the same every year: “Dear Santa: Please bring me the tools to cope with living.”

Such is actor Anthony F. Ingram’s fate, though he’s not interested in your pity. Rather, the star of Blackbird Theatre’s Uncle Vanya is candid, funny, and thoughtful as he discusses why Vanya is his fictional kin: they’re both 47, both suffer from depression, and both have contemplated suicide.

“I spent most of my life suffering from clinical depression and only in the last two or three years have I felt like what ‘normal’ people feel like,” Ingram says, sitting on a couch in the upstairs lobby of a rehearsal space in East Van. “I had my near-suicide moment and was in the hospital, and when he [Vanya] talks about the shame, that’s a huge part of it. The idea that your life is amounting to nothing.”

This is also Vanya’s main reckoning: the professor he worshipped has let him down, the woman he loves doesn’t love him back, and he’s ultimately driven to total rage and despair that manifests in ways both tragic and darkly comic (the so-hapless-and-inept-it’s-humorous kind).

“When I look at the way that he responds to events, I can completely understand how he gets there,” Ingram says. “If you’re just reading it, you don’t quite understand how someone could see the world that way.”

Vanya may not have lived in a time when depression was well understood, but luckily Ingram did. It was in acting school at Studio 58 in the mid ’90s that director Morris Panych observed Ingram’s behaviour and suggested to the instructors that his 28-year-old student was suffering from depression. Follow-ups with doctors confirmed it, and Ingram recalls that the diagnosis was “liberating”.

“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, I’m not crazy. I am crazy,’ you know what I mean?” he says, laughing. “I knew there was a reason for me feeling so crappy and in a way it was a light, a glimmer of the possibility of hope.”

Ingram laughs more than one might think possible given the nature of the discussion. But as he points out, Uncle Vanya is sometimes considered Chekhov’s funniest play because it’s about basic human needs. Based on the rehearsal of the final act, Blackbird Theatre delivers, drawing out Chekhov’s sharpest edges so that when things turn on a dime toward potent devastation, the audience is hit all the harder. Ingram lights up when it’s confirmed that there’s a lot to laugh about in the final act.

“I really hope it [the black humour] is there; I think it has to be. That’s my biggest worry, is that we’ll somehow miss it. Because when I’m in the scene, I’m not seeing it at all, but that’s what you trust your director for,” Ingram notes.

It’s a two-way street. Director John Wright has put his faith in Ingram repeatedly over the years, for which Ingram is thankful—because, he says, the theatre’s the one place he’s always been happy.

“I love the ensemble nature of theatre. It’s always been my family,” he says. “When I felt my family at home was dysfunctional, it was my family at theatre I could count on.”

It’s fitting that as Ingram has worked so hard to unlock this “normal” achievement, Vanya affords him the opportunity to mine his past for his present. A decade-long series of ups and downs followed his initial diagnosis in 1995: experiments with antidepressants and dosages; a huge blowout and subsequent reconciliation with his parents; the heady lift from his first stint at the Stratford Festival working with Christopher Plummer. Weekly sessions with a psychiatrist have been the backbone of his evolution. But even with all of these tools at his disposal, Ingram still felt suicide’s appeal.

“My wife was out and I spent the whole afternoon waiting for her to come home, knowing I couldn’t go in the kitchen because the knives were there, so I needed to stay in the living room,” Ingram says. “So I stayed in the living room and waited for her to come home, but I knew I wanted to kill myself. So she called the doctor and they said, ‘Okay, drive him to the hospital,’ but I said, ‘No, you can’t drive me. I’ll jump out.’

“Suicide is a really complicated emotion and drive, and I think the people who actually succeed at it—for me, the image I had in my head was a thin, red thread. If that red thread had snapped, I would have been gone, but I was holding on to that. I think that Vanya has a string, rather than a thread,” he says.

While Ingram knows that most people would keep a suicide attempt secret, he’s adamant that not only does he need to talk about it but everybody else needs to as well.

“People with mental illness are completely ostracized,” he says. “I am one of the lucky ones who’s survived.…The least I can do is be honest and try to break away some of the shame.”

It’s also something that he carries around with him all the time, not as some kind of failure the way Vanya might, but as a strange kind of hope.

“I actually think about it a lot because it amazes me that I’m still here,” he says. “I have a moment-to-moment recollection of everything that happened and it’s important to me to hold on to it, because the fact that I didn’t do it says something to me about hope. There is something to live for. I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, but there is a reason for us to keep living.”

Uncle Vanya runs at the Cultch until January 18.

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