Up from the Streets: “Project Dawn” at the Unicorn

The Unicorn Theatre scores points for timeliness with its well-acted production of “Project Dawn,” a social-awareness drama based on a real court in Philadelphia that tries to get prostitutes off the street. The goal is to steer them into productive lives through a combination of therapy, tough love and close court supervision.

The show packs a heftier punch than it might have a year ago, now that the #MeToo movement is triggering almost daily allegations of abusive men in powerful positions. After all, we live in a society in which, until fairly recently, female prostitutes faced prosecution far more than their male customers — a point discussed more than once in Karen Hartman’s play.

Which brings us to a more basic reality than that suggested by the recent high-profile accusations brought by movie stars, broadcasters, celebrity hounds and political apparatchiks. The women depicted in this play are on the opposite end of the social spectrum. They are fighting to extricate themselves from a cycle of drug addiction, mental illness, emotional disorders and physical abuse. Hartman’s play doesn’t follow a conventional plot but rather presents a succession of individual stories that can be funny, tragic or inspiring.

Director Heidi Van assembles a group of formidable actors, each of whom plays dual roles. The ever-impressive Kathleen Warfel appears as Judge Roberta Kaplan and Bonnie, an up-from-the-gutter figure who inspires others with her tough survival instincts. Jennifer Mays plays Gwen, an often strident public defender who fights for the court to succeed despite daunting family problems, as well as Cassie, a self-pitying drug-addict not yet on a successful recovery track.

The charismatic Nedra Dixon does double-duty as Kyla, an ambitious prosecutor, and Shondell, an ex-hooker with an eye patch who just might be on the brink of a clean new life. Amy Attaway stretches her versatility as Tracy, a slick-talking drug dealer, as well as Sister Carol, an aging nun who runs a home for ex-hookers and who has issues with the court. Appearing as Lola, a sympathetic Latina doing her best to get her life on the right track, and Nia, the hyper-efficient court coordinator, is the luminous Vanessa A. Davis.

Leah Swank-Miller effectively handles the sharply contrasting roles of Noelle, a bright young intern who hopes to become an attorney, and Ashlee, a young woman bedeviled by what appear to be profound mental issues. And Lanette King impresses as Krystal, who grapples with a particularly aggressive brand of dysfunction, and Ruth, the court program’s senior therapist.

The performances are all the more impressive for the sometimes split-second transitions required by the play. The actors often shift gears between their dual roles in a heartbeat without sacrificing momentum. And some of the players make particularly vivid impressions. Dixon’s triumphant scene as the boisterous Shondell as she “graduates” from the court is masterful. Warfel delivers the show’s magnificent set piece, a lengthy, emotional speech by Bonnie about her extraordinary journey. And Davis handles Lola’s concluding account of her court-approved trip to see family in California and what it implies for her future; it’s an inspiring testament to commitment and hope.

Most of the characters are assigned at least one major monologue, and as a result the play feels too long. It could use a bit of trimming without sacrificing meaning. A few judicial cuts might sharpen the dramatic impact of the changes and challenges in each character’s life. The court logistics are sometimes unclear and the play generally lacks narrative momentum.

Even so, there’s no getting away from the reality of an under-staffed court trying to help women with seemingly intractable problems. Hartman’s play wears its message on its sleeve. But that’s not always a bad thing. Too many works for the stage fail to address real-world problems. This one faces them head-on.

“Project Dawn” runs through Feb. 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. 816-531-7529/www.unicorntheatre.org

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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