Review of Digging Up Dessa at Metro Theater Company

    Digging Up Dessa investigates a cluster of themes of importance to young audiences, including the difficulty of coping with loss, the need for models like oneself to reach one’s full potential, and the value of promoting diversity in scientific fields. The ambitious play by Laura Schellhardt receives a splendid production from Metro Theater Company.

    Twelve-year-old Dessa is a budding fossil hunter whose world was rocked when her father died in an automobile accident. Shortly afterwards, she moved to a new home in a new school district.

    Estranged from her mother (whom Dessa blames for the accident) and away from all the friends who might have supported her, Dessa turns to an unlikely source for guidance—Mary Anning. She was a 19th century paleontologist who made important discoveries but did not receive the credit she was due. Instead, she became the inspiration for the tongue twister, “She Sells Seashells.”

    Dessa knows about Mary because she was the only woman in a book on notable paleontologists given to Dessa by her father. When Mary first appears, Dessa is the only person onstage who can see or hear her. As a pioneer in the field in which Dessa aspires to work, Mary is an inspiration, regardless of whether she is imaginary.

    The neglect of Mary and other women scientists impels Dessa to act out during a visit to a natural history museum. To makes amends for an act of vandalism and avoid paying for the damage, Dessa must work on a science fair project with Nilo, whose father heads the museum’s board of trustees.

    Dessa’s project involves searching for fossils at night in newly exposed soil at a construction project near her home. Dessa expects the judges to give Nilo credit for the work, proving her hypothesis that science is still biased against women.

    The Metro production has an excellent cast. Rae Davis captures both the determination and the restiveness that drive Dessa toward her goals. Lizi Watt gives Mary Anning charming eccentricity and disarming wisdom. In Alicia Revé Like’s performance, Dessa’s mother is the most caring of parents as she tries to meet her troubled daughter’s emotional needs. John Katz adds welcome humor as Nilo, who wants to design sounds for video games instead of following the path his father has set out for him.

    Julia Flood’s direction brings pace and clarity to the action through perceptive staging on the flexible set designed by Louis Bird (who also designed the costumes). In a clever touch, orange fencing covers part of the stage and some of the seating to mark off the construction site where Dessa digs. The properties master is Katie Orr; the lighting designer, Catherine Adams.

    Rusty Wandall rises to the challenge of creating sounds for a character obsessed with creating sounds. Impressive music composed by Deborah Wicks La Puma completes the play’s sound world.

    Digging Up Dessa continues through November 7 at the Grandel Theatre

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Jennifer A. Lin