Charles Janasz has acted in more than 30 productions at the Guthrie Theater since 1987, including Amadeus, Richard II, and The Importance of Being Earnest. His return as Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike marks his first performance at the Guthrie since 2002.
1. How would you describe Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
It’s a wonderful play: absurd humor combined with great heart. It’s the story of a family—siblings—dealing with problems that everyone has to deal with, especially people of my generation. They’re dealing with old and dying parents, siblings who move away and then come home again, disappointing lives, finding happiness where you are, discovering what you have is actually pretty special, especially if you’re unhappy with your life from day to day. It has verbal wit, sight gags. It’s the biggest laughs I’ve had in a long time. The show is very funny and very touching.
2. Your character Vanya is partly inspired by Chekov’s character Uncle Vanya, who you have portrayed on the stage before. How would you compare Vanya from this production to Uncle Vanya?
I think this Vanya is not quite as wholly defeated as Chekov’s Vanya. By the end of the play he has hope: He has his sisters, he has his house. At the end of Uncle Vanya, he’s headed for deep, deep despair. In fact, I think his last line is something like: “It hurts so much, if only you knew how much it hurts.” In this play they’re turning a corner and healing a little bit. In this play they are absurd, ridiculous people. The characters are so ridiculous and funny in the depths of their despair, but the audience is laughing uproariously. Uncle Vanya has this huge breakdown where he rails against a professor, and in this play there’s a similar breakdown and Vanya recovers and he has to go on. There’s that balance between “I can’t go on, I must go on.” It’s wonderful; it’s so full of life.
3. What do you bring personally to the character of Vanya; how do you make him come to life?
I hope I bring both humor and heart. It’s very important that Vanya has a really big and good heart, and a sense of humor. And I have experience of life, dealing with time passing and parents getting old and dying and all that kind of stuff. I am very much Vanya’s age and generation, so when he starts talking about the 50s and the things that he misses, we both remember it as an innocent time, but it was artificially innocent. He knows that he’s dealing with a fantasy of what the past was like.
4. What do you most enjoy about the play?
It’s a wonderful play and a wonderful role. I love working with old friends and new. I also think that I enjoy rehearsals more than performances because I enjoy the collaborative nature of theater, always working with extremely smart, talented, funny, interesting people. And the play itself—I love the layers: comedy and sadness mixed together.
5. Is there anything you’ve learned or discovered from being a part of this performance?
Just the continuing discovery of life. I think I heard it on A Prairie Home Companion: Garrison Keillor said that “life is just one damn thing after another.” This play, in its Chekovian way, says that life goes on, you meet new people, keep old friends. The play ends in hope; you keep hoping. You feel like you can’t go on but you must go on, helping other people, taking care of them, taking care of yourself. It’s a wonderful, hopeful, heartfelt play with wonderful characters who are both loveable and ridiculous—as real people are.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is playing at the Guthrie through August 31. Tickets available on the Guthrie’s website.