Review: PROJECT DAWN at Unicorn Theatre

By: Jan. 30, 2018
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Review: PROJECT DAWN at Unicorn Theatre

"Project Dawn," Karen Hartman's new play at the Unicorn Theatre, is powerful, heart-rending, often slyly funny, and serendipitously timely during a national conversation over drug abuse and sex trafficking. The play is handsomely produced and well-acted by an all-female cast of seven playing fourteen identifiable roles.

The main setting is a Philadelphia courtroom. Project Dawn is a monitored, four-step program for female sex and drug offenders. In exchange for a plea of "nolo contendere," the program offers to expunge the women's criminal record after successful completion of the program. This underfunded program actually exists as part of the Pennsylvania criminal court system. Jail sentences for prostitution in Pennsylvania are exceptionally harsh.

Each month, program participants must appear in front of Judge Roberta Kaplan's (Kathleen Warfel) court and have their records examined for progress in fighting their particular demons. Assisting the judge is county prosecutor Kyla (Nedra Dixon), public defender Gwen (Jennifer Mays), legal intern (Leah Swank-Miller), court clerk Nia (Vanessa A. Davis), and social worker Ruth (Lanette King). We learn early on that many of the court officials are also former offenders or among the abused population.

"Project Dawn" can be a little talky, but the audience is treated to excellent performances in meaty roles by all the performers. The subject is important.

All the actors double in brass as second characters. Almost all are court clients in addition to being court officials. The one exception is Amy Elizabeth Attaway as Tracy. Tracy is a bright former drug dealer and also Sister Carol, an eighty year-old nun, who protects the privacy of her charges at all costs.

Jennifer Mays is public defender (Gwen) and the physically damaged Cassie. Cassie needs a hip replaced to escape unbearable pain currently dulled only by opiates. Gwen is exhausted. Her marriage is shaky and custody of her four children is in doubt due to work workplace pressures.

Kathleen Warfel's Judge Kaplan is tough yet sympathetic to her charges. She also appears as Bonnie, a project success story who unfortunately backslides and eventually dies sadly on the Avenue.

Vanessa A. Davis as court clerk Nia appears and Lola, a diabetic former hooker. She makes good progress on her drug and sex problems and has been able to maintain a job, but finds diet vigilance for sugar diabetes a bridge too difficult to cross. Lola is offered the opportunity to reunite with her Mother in California. She ends up a program star. Clerk Nia is the efficient heart of the program as its one paid employee.

Nedra Dixon is the tough as nails prosecutor Kyla and abused hooker Shondell. She makes us feel both her strength and her pain. Leah Swank-Miller's Ashlee is glowering, sometimes morose, and always difficult to communicate with. Lanette King is the empathetic social worker Ruth and the racially downtrodden and damaged Kystal. The transformation was so complete, that I checked the program twice to assure I hadn't missed another actress in the cast.

Director Heidi Van has done a nice job of pulling this worthy, but overlong piece of writing. Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes. Van has the advantage of a very good cast and fine support in the scenic design area by Emily Swenson. The set is top notch. "

Project Dawn" is worthwhile in its approach to societal challenges. It accurately portrays the difficulties faced by well meaning, but underfunded programs like this one. There are multiple lesson to be drawn.

"Project Dawn" continues at the Unicorn through February 18. Tickets are available at the Unicorn website: or by telephone at 816.531.PLAY(7529).

Photo courtesy of Unicorn Theatre by Cynthia Levin


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