In “Project Dawn” at Horizon Theatre, seven women play prostitutes trying to rehabilitate themselves in a special court program in Philadelphia. They also double as the court staff and a nun, as shown here. The company consists of Brooke Owens, Lane Carlock, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, Marianne Fraulo, Christy Clark, Bobbi Lynne Scott and Carolyn Cook. PHOTO CREDIT: Greg Mooney

Review: ‘Project Dawn’ finds glimmer of hope in horrors of sex trade

Karen Hartman’s play “Project Dawn” is about a group of prostitutes enrolled in a Philadelphia program trying to save them from jail time.

These stories of drug addiction, sexual violation and mutilation are raw, visceral and compelling. Some of the women will earn their freedom; others will wander off into the night, never to be heard from again.

Directed by Lisa Adler at Horizon Theatre, “Project Dawn” is a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere.” (That means it will get separate productions at theaters in other cities around this time.) Hartman found her material by observing the real-life Project Dawn Court in Philadelphia for a year, and she structures the work so that seven actors play the people on both sides of the law: the hookers and the women who try to rehabilitate them.

Though the writing needs work, “Project Dawn” features dazzling, quicksilver performances by some top-notch Atlanta talents, who are required to alternate between characters of wildly disparate backgrounds. Little by little, we are allowed to see that some of the women in power might be in just as much emotional jeopardy as their charges.

In Act 1, we are introduced to the binary nature of this kinder, gentler “Orange Is the New Black.” From a comical scene in a bathroom — fidgety young Ashlee (Brooke Owens) tries to bum a cigarette from Krystal (Christy Clark) — we move on to a courtroom setting. Here Ashlee has morphed into Noelle, the bright, earnest intern of public defender Project Dawn founder Gwen (Lane Carlock), and Krystal is now the court’s therapist, Ruth.

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.

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