Laura Schellhardt’s Digging Up Dessa tell the story of a troubled teenager who copes with a family tragedy through her interest in fossils. This world premiere production, commissioned by the Kennedy Center as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, stretches the boundaries of family theater to offer a powerful and educational story.
The story opens with a recounting of the death of Dessa’s beloved father in an automobile accident (tastefully done, but still a dark start for a play with a young audience). As a result, Dessa and her mother Esther move to a small apartment in new city and Dessa starts a new school, all while trying to deal with a host of unresolved feelings.
Dessa is hurt and angry, mad at the world and blaming her mother for the situation. Dessa mostly excludes the world from her suffering, sharing her feelings only with the visiting spirit of 19th century British paleontologist Mary Anning.
When Dessa engages in “acting out” at a museum over its historical credit given solely to wealthy men and excluding contributors like Mary Anning, she is reluctantly forced to cooperate on a Science Fair project with classmate Nilo. Nilo has his own problems dealing with a father who has high expectations and who finds unworthy Nilo’s desired career of providing sound effects for video games.
The broad terms of the plot may seem familiar for a family theater production. You don’t need to have seen too many Afterschool Specials to guess that the two gradually form an unlikely friendship and that Dessa eventually comes to terms with her feelings and her mother.
Yet the strength of this work comes from its mature approach to both emotional, educational, and political themes. Rarely will you see a portrayal of a teenage girl as troubled as Alina Collins Maldonado deeply involving performance as Dessa. Nor are you likely to see such a blunt description of the politics of excluding from history women such as Mary Anning, who discovered several fossils but whose gender and lower-class background kept her from gaining credit and fame.
Jackie Reneé Robinson gives a spirited performance as the fascinating, real-life Mary Anning, whose fossils discoveries and other contributions to science have only recently received acknowledgement. (In 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.) The Anning character laments the fact she is only known by most as the possible inspiration for the “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” tongue-twister, but her sharing of her own story of paternal love, personal struggles, and professional endeavors provides guidance and emotional support to Dessa.
As Nilo, Chris Stinson delivers a lively performance and much comedic relief to the story. He also provides a nice complement to Dessa in terms of both personality and personal needs.
Additional light-hearted moments come through Esther’s day job creating amusing jingles for commercial products (musical compositions from Deborah Wicks La Puma) and her efforts to invoke the universe to achieve family goals. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan also gives a well-rounded portrayal of a mother’s agony in watching Dessa digging through her memories and emotions, knowing that she can’t rush her process.
Digging Up Dessa
closes February 18, 2018
Details and tickets
Director Rives Collins does a fine job telling the story, keeping the energy high, and yet modulating the character’s emotions. His experience as Head of Theatre for Yong Audiences at Northwestern is demonstrated in his ability to guide a production with more depth and subtlety than the typical play targeting young theatregoers.
There are a few minor problems with the story. Dessa’s plan to use the Science Fair as a means to achieve multiple goals (and help the playwright tie together different themes) is a little convoluted. The play’s politics can be a little heavy-handed at times. Younger audiences mature enough for the play’s themes are smart enough to get the messages.
Those who have had the pleasure of seeing other Kennedy Center Family Theater productions will not be surprised by the excellent production values. While the entire artist crew deserves kudos, the best opportunities to shine belonged to Deb Booth’s intelligent set with appropriate earth tones, Patrick Lord’s artful projections, and Kenny Neal smart sound effects.
For the right audiences, Digging Up Dessa offers thoughts thoughtful entertainment that is intelligent and involving. The quality of this production inspires optimism for the next Laura Schellhardt / Rives Collins collaboration, Ever in the Glades, which will play for only one weekend in June at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.
[Note to adults: while the Kennedy Center advertises the play as “Most enjoyed by age 10 and up” this reviewer thinks 12 might be a better suggestion, especially since the reviewed performance drew many children that appeared well under 10 years of age].
Digging Up Dessa by Laura Schellhardt. Music composed by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Rives Collins. Featuring Alina Collins Maldonado, Jackie Reneé Robinson, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, and Chris Stinson. Scenic Designer: Deb Booth. Lighting Designer: Martha Mountain. Costume Designer: Jen Gillette. Projection Designer: Patrick Lord. Sound Designer: Kenny Neal. Properties Artisan: Audrey Bodek. Dramaturg: Grace Overbeke. Casting Director: Michelle Kozlak. Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie. Artistic Director: Kim Peter Kovac. Executive Director: Mario Rossero. Producing Director: David Kilpatrick. Presented by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.