As I sidled my way last night past the crowds into the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix, I must admit I was skeptical. An entire play constructed mainly of a trial transcript? Really?
Anyone who has been to a trial or two knows you would need a genius writer to make that come together into dramatic arts. And so the play “8” had one: Dustin Lance Black had whittled a trial into an evening that was provocative, funny and compelling.
I mentioned the play last Friday, and I was pleased that my family and I were able to attend. “8” tells the story of the trial over the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
Black drew on his mondo skills to shape a play comprised almost entirely of the trial transcript. There are a few moments that are tough sledding, especially, I imagine, for the many nonlawyers in the house. Arguing over the standard of review is often a game-changer in a case, but it’s an oddly shaped building block in crafting compelling theater.
There are only a few of those moments, though. The craft and the words selected were amazing. And what consistently impressed was the quality of the performances. Non-actors almost all, the cast delivered a rousing and entirely convincing play.
I know that one actor–director was cast, to fabulous results. Ron May is the founder and artistic director of Stray Cat Theatre, and his rendition of a witness was wow-inspiring. Cast as David Blankenhorn, May encapsulated eloquently the ideologue who had never been challenged to defend his beliefs before he sat in a witness chair. As he is cross-examined by David Boies of Bush v. Gore fame (played superbly by lawyer and Phoenix Councilman Tom Simplot), bluster turns to anger turns to frustration turns to near-total capitulation. As the steam escapes from Blankenhorn’s pompous world view, the state’s case deflates before the audience’s eyes. If there’s one thing we know, it’s more Ron May, please.
The strong performing continued with the attorneys. Amazing work was delivered by Grant Woods (as Ted Olson), Nicole France Stanton (as plaintiff Sandy Stier), Terry Goddard (as trial Judge Vaughn Walker), and Bill Sheppard.
A marvelous moment occurred after the play and during a brief audience-question session. One man (whom I couldn’t see from the nosebleed section) rose to praise Grant Woods. The speaker said that when he was a young Assistant Attorney General 23 years ago, he had serious concerns about being a gay man in the large public agency. But he said that Woods had told him that all he would ever be judged on in that office was merit, the quality of his work. That compelling memory led to a standing ovation for the former Attorney General, which grew to include his own fellow performers.
(Years ago, I had the chance to appear on the Herberger stage in a father–daughter performance with our wonderfully ever-patient Willa. I thought I had turned in a pretty good show. But then I saw Grant Woods get a well-deserved standing ovation, so I think I’m done.)
My family and I greatly enjoyed the show. And I must add what especially struck me (caution: lawyer moment approaching):
It was remarkable to see, via the true-to-life transcripts, the power that an actual trial may have. In an age when trials are rarer and rarer and they are derided as the ultimate failure of negotiated resolution, it’s worth remembering that truth often peeks out of that ancient construct. Outside the courtroom, lying, puffery, bullying and rants may win the day. But seated in that witness chair, required to endure a series of simple questions, those resting on a crumbling foundation often founder. Except for the sociopathic, misstatements and worse cause discomfort and anxiety when one is required to raise a hand and utter an oath.
Not such a bad message to learn, for lawyers and nonlawyers alike.
Congratulations to all who participated.