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Local Playwright’s New Show Explores Family And Memory On 'The Last Frontier'

Heather Mull
The cast of "Inside Passage," at Quantum Theatre

Gab Cody is a Pittsburgh-based playwright. But the inspiration for her newest work began some 3,500 miles northwest of here.

Cody, born in Alaska, was just 5-years-old when her mother moved her to the lower 48 states. But about 35 years after they left, her mother gave her an old photo album. Cody said she was looking through it when her young daughter asked about a photo of four little kids sitting on horseback: Cody, her half-brother and her two foster siblings. Though she had not thought about them in decades, Cody automatically said, “That’s my family.”

“They had lapsed into a forgotten childhood,” said Cody. “And I began to excavate that time and I began to wonder what would happen if I went looking for them.”

A few years ago, Cody’s search led her back to Alaska, this time with a videographer. Her attempts to locate her foster siblings, Eddie and Sharon, also gave birth to Inside Passage, the play that premieres March 2 at Quantum Theatre.

Quantum artistic director Karla Boos, who has previously produced work by Cody, was intrigued by the emotion the old photo triggered in the playwright. “It was clearly like the tip of an iceberg, and I wanted to know what the iceberg was,” said Boos.

“Everyone has some lost connection in their life that they wish that they could find and reconnect to,” said Cody during an interview prior to a late-February rehearsal for the play, which Quantum is staging at the Provident Charter School in Troy Hill, formerly North Catholic High School.

Raising the stakes was the fact that Cody’s foster siblings were members of a tribe of native Alaskans called Tlingit--the issue of whether white families like Cody’s should be given guardianship of Tlingit children is controversial in Alaska, and complicated her search.  

Still, the play’s director, Sam Turich, says Inside Passage is essentially about the nature of family.

“The main question that I think the story is asking is, ‘What is family? … How does it grow? How does it change? And what right do we have to declare that people belong in our family?” said Turich, who is also Cody’s spouse.

Cody’s theatrical works tend toward the unconventional. She is probably best known for her large-scale works of immersive theater for Bricolage Productions, including STRATA, which took over an entire Downtown building, and the recent DODO, staged in the Carnegie Museums of Art, in Oakland. While Inside Passage is not an immersive work – the audience, for the most part, is not directly involved in the show – it, too, tends to value situations over conventional storylines.

And it’s built around what Cody calls “pre-enactments,” or imagined encounters with her long-lost foster siblings, should she ever find them.

The casting is unusual, too. The show’s cast of three men and three women constantly trade roles throughout the show, regardless of race, age and gender. It’s highly theatrical.

“When you have six actors, the audience responds differently to each performer, and each performer brings something of their personality to the piece, and has their own distinct voice,” said Cody.

The cast includes Laurie Klatscher, Kyle Haden, John Shepard, Shammen McCune, Kelsey Robinson and Skylar Ray-Benson Davis. All are locally-based save for Davis, who is a Tlingit from Alaska – and a voice and collaborator whom Turich said he and Cody felt it was important to include in the production.

Despite the sometimes emotionally wrenching subject matter, Inside Passage is, it should be noted, basically a comedy. Cody is a big fan of classic screwball comedy, and her newest work includes plenty of sight gags, physical humor, and wordplay. Two of the characters, in fact, are a couple of grouchy, if curious, bears.

The show also incorporates extensive multimedia elements, including footage from Cody’s travels and a mock video travelogue for Alaska.

In the search for her foster siblings, Cody also learned how wrong some of her own memories could be. “Memory is very unreliable, and this piece is definitely about the unreliability of memory and assumptions,” said Cody.

Inside Passage runs March 2-25. For more information, see Quantum’s website.

Quantum Theatre is an underwriter of 90.5 WESA.