PROJECT DAWN, a well-intentioned but dull play receiving its world premiere at People’s Light & Theatre Company, is heavy with messages but short on drama. Playwright Karen Hartman has clearly done her homework on Philadelphia’s Project Dawn Court, which aims to keep prostitutes out of jail and “off the Ave” through rehabilitation, therapy, and positive reinforcement. But she shows little aptitude for translating the noble goals of the court and the gritty realities of the women it serves into a satisfying evening of theater.
The play unfolds through a series of court sessions, through which we learn about the women enrolled in the program and how they became embroiled in the brutal cycles of sex work and drug addiction. We also gain an understanding of the court’s mission through its compassionate but firm custodians, who are not afraid to mete out both “the hug and the hammer.” Hartman excels at presenting the court’s ecosystem, which is underscored by having the actors who the positions of authority doubling as clients at one point or another. There but for the grace of God go any one of us, this suggests.
What Hartman brings off less well is building any sort of dramatic tension in the proceedings. She spends little time crafting interpersonal relationships between the women, preferring instead to let them monologize about their histories and hardships. She also frequently uses her characters to sermonize. When Noelle, a wet-behind-the-ears legal intern (played by Claire Inie-Richards), considers whether sex work can ever truly be consensual or empowering, the court’s prosecuting attorney Kyla (Yvette Ganier) and public defender Gwen (Antoinette LaVecchia) launch into an elongated treatise on what they consider to be the bogus posturing of sex positivity that sucks up the play’s limited air supply. In moments like this, it is impossible to not feel like you’re being lectured to.
Both the women of the court and the women it serves too often feel like broadly drawn stock characters: the tough-as-nails prosecutor, the worn-down PD, and of course, the hookers with hearts of gold. It is a shame that Hartman never digs deeper. At one point, Kyla states that one-third of women working in law enforcement experienced sexual trauma before entering the profession. This should serve as a fascinating entry point into the backstories of these compelling and complicated women, but Hartman only divulges personal details in fits and starts. We are left knowing very little about the women on either side of the bench.
As is often the case, People’s Light comes through with an impressive physical production. The cast is comprised of company members (Inie-Richards, Melanye Finister), local favorites (Janis Dardaris, Danielle Skraastad), and talented visiting actors (Ganier, LaVecchia, Susanna Guzman). All are excellent, though the fast-rising Inie-Richards—a sensational Vivie in Lantern’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession earlier this season—is particularly heartbreaking as a young woman whose downward spiral resulted from circumstances beyond her control. Set and costume designer Jessica Ford defines the world of the court through her veristic set, and does well in differentiating the women through distinctive articles of clothing that can be quickly donned or shed to signify a change in character. Director Abigail Adams effectively paces the production, and dialect coach Melanie Julian deserves mention for the broad spectrum of convincing Philadelphia accents on display.
Yet all these polished parts cannot fix the problem at the center of PROJECT DAWN: it lacks a compelling narrative structure and characters we can really get to know.
[People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern]; June 7-July 9, 2017; peopleslights.org.