A kitchen set. A young Black woman in contemporary clothes stands left, with a white woman in 19th-century dress next to her. In the foreground, another white woman in contemporary dress looks offstage.
Digging Up Dessa at Theatre Above the Law Credit: Tyler Core

Laura Schellhardt’s Digging Up Dessa was commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center as part of its Theater for Young Audiences program in 2018. But this play, now in its Chicago premiere with Theatre Above the Law, is like a lot of great YA fiction—relevant to many audiences. 

Digging Up Dessa
Through 5/22: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Theatre Above the Law, 1439 W. Jarvis, theatreatl.org, $20-$23.

Dessa (Star Smith) is a young girl grieving the death of her father in a car accident, trying to fit into a new school in a new city, and engaging in dialogue with the spirit of 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning (Stephanie Stockstill), whose pioneering fossil discoveries along England’s “Jurassic Coast” in Lyme Regis were given short shrift in her own lifetime. Under protest, Dessa partners up with rich boy Nilo (Anders Danielson) on a science fair project inspired by Anning’s work (and the way it was ignored by the patriarchs of paleontology). Meantime, her musician mother, Esther (Melanie McNulty), struggles to connect with Dessa while writing jingles for a paper company.

In Tony Lawry’s staging, the story unfolds with engaging wit and poignancy. Digging up the past for Dessa doesn’t just mean restoring Anning to a place of honor on the wall of the local museum. It also means understanding the truth about her dead dad and the mother she blames. Stina Taylor’s set, with hand-drawn fossils on the floor and a curio cabinet reflecting objects of symbolic importance in the play, provides a spare but smart environment, and the cast delivers Schellhardt’s dialogue, which ranges from scientific disquisition to soul-searching grief, with simplicity and empathy.