Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Old family snapshots, personal memories and a search for the differing truths behind them might seem common fodder for a poem, but for a play? Sounds more like therapy than theater — but not in the thoughtful, comic heart and hands of playwright Gab Cody.
Her “Inside Passage” is an autobiographical mini epic that recapitulates a search of several years for Ms. Cody’s youthful “family.” (One of its reminders is that families come in so many varieties, they all could use quote marks.) This was a family of just four years’ duration, when baby Gab, her mother and her older half brother lived in the Alaskan panhandle (that’s one inside passage), where their family was enlarged by two young foster children, Sharon and Eddie.
All adult Gab retains of this time is faint memories, until suddenly her own daughter demands to know who these snapshot-people are: “Tell me about them.” So Gab sets out after four decades to recover people and memories, each more elusive than the others. Along the way she turns up other relatives, and because Sharon and Ed are Tlingit — Native Americans, First Nations, take your pick — she conducts a course in the politics of ethnic inheritance, as well.
Being Gab, which is to say less a playwright than an inventive creator of theater, she takes along not only her husband, actor-director Sam Turich, but also cinematographer Rob Long. Their search is documented, but in such a way that it can also serve to tell stories, illustrate myth and stiffen a play. In fact, I’m reluctant to call it a play but very happy to call it an engrossing, illuminating and entertaining 100 theatrical minutes.
The only false step is the opening, a comically old-fashioned pitch for Alaskan tourism. Fine. But the narrator is so over-the-top fulsome that it sets your teeth on edge, rather than letting you appreciate the ironies on your own.
That this comes first turns out to be a blessing, because once it’s out of the way, there’s nary a false step — or rather, the steps (snippets) are so many (33, count ’em) and varied that we are compelled to jump in and share the dance, letting the creative threesome lead.
That threesome is Mr. Turich, who directs; Mr. Long, who provides video and lights; and Gab, who gets called by her first name because, in addition to being the playwright, she becomes the playwright-seeker central character, with whatever degree of verisimilitude or invention you discern.
Mr. Turich has presumably had a lot to do with bringing people, animals and video, real and imagined, past and present, into just enough coherence. Mr. Long not only shot documentary footage, but he also stages its presence on multiple screens so the actors and animals can interface with it. And Gab — well, the play proper starts with all six actors saying, “I’m Gab.” And they are. As the search progresses, each once enacts Gab at different times, without any confusion I could see — testimony to the director.
Beyond that, all actors play many roles, although some specialize, especially Shammen McCune and Skyler Ray-Benson Davis (a native Tlingit himself) as Sharon and Eddie, the foster once-siblings. But Kyle Hayden, Kelsey Robinson, Laurie Klatscher and John Shepard also all have their particularly effective characters.
And then there are those two bears — bears! — a prime example of Gab’s whimsy — no, she probably won’t like that word — her sense of the ridiculous and surreal comedy. Or maybe not so ridiculous: Maybe that really is how bears talk and move sets and barely tolerate their human neighbors.
“Inside Passage” wears its politics pretty lightly, especially by interjecting it in wry tones fairly early before yielding the story to the slowly accumulating focus on the family. The most interesting subject, though, is the show’s making, both the story it tells of its own making, but also the one it shows. So credit also to the surprisingly flexible scenic design by Kellan Andersen.
This being Quantum, which always performs in a new space, I have to point out that this one is exceptionally comfortable in both temperature and seating. I can think of several possible connections between this complex story and a decommissioned Catholic high school, but nothing that cries out.
And that’s not necessary: At a time when we so need to reconnect to our roots and respect the roots of others, such a journey must reverberate for all. That journey is a passage of another kind. Ideally, it connects to a true inside passage toward self-knowledge.