Bobbi Lynn Scott plays Kyla, the lawyer from the district attorney’s office, as well Shondell, who has been brutally assaulted and wears an eye patch. Marianne Fraulo is Judge Roberta Kaplan. (Think of a softer Judge Judy or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) Maria Rodriguez-Sager is Nia, the efficient court coordinator who tries to get the women the assistance they need. That is, when she’s not Lola, a wistful young Latina who longs to visit her mother in Los Angeles but can’t seem to address her own health issues.
Lurking in the margins, waiting to be called on for her interview, is Tracy, a drug dealer-turned-tattoo artist. Carolyn Cook captures this character with brilliant detail, down to the twitchy mannerisms and dilated pupils. When a door opens and Cook’s secondary character appears, your jaw will drop. Talk about opposites!
For the most part, Carlock and Fraulo wear masks of decorum appropriate to their legal roles, but when Carlock switches hats to play the heartbreaking Cassie and Fraulo becomes the triumphant Bonnie Mason in motivational-speaker mode, they are extraordinary.
Clark’s takes on Krystal (who is most likely schizophrenic) and Ruth can both be quite hilarious. Owens is by turns delightfully fresh-faced (as Noelle) and poignantly disconsolate (Ashlee). Scott and Sager are good, too.
Except for some rather pointless scene-shifting interludes with music and pantomime, Act 1 mostly does its job. The stories are affecting, and we are set up for things to be resolved in the second half.
Alas, the play falls apart, drags on for more than 2 1/2 hours, and includes an inert sequence in which the courtroom group is asked to respond to a series of questions by writing down their answers. The clock ticks. The only purpose seems to be to tell us that the calm and composed Judge Kaplan is actually quite distraught.
Rodriquez-Sager also gets stuck with an interminable monologue about her character’s plane ride. And though we expect Cassie’s fate to be revealed, for better or worse, we are left hanging.
My final argument: “Project Dawn” is a fascinating evening of theater that reveals the horror and degradation of the sex-trade business, which is often cyclical in nature, repeating itself across generations. Some of these women lose everything, including their children.
Though the acting is quite fine, the theme provocative, you can almost feel the author and director wringing their hands trying to find a way out. Ultimately, there’s no escape.
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays. 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays. 5 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 29. Tickets start at $25. Horizon Theatre, Austin Avenue, Atlanta. 404-584-7450, horizontheatre.com
Bottom line: Great performances but material needs work