8 play by Dustin Lance Black in AZAs 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.

Performers in the play 8, Herberger Center Theatre, Phoenix, May 7, 2013

Performers in the play 8, Herberger Center Theatre, Phoenix, May 7, 2013

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.

View from Balcony, Row EE (hint: buy tickets earlier).

View from Balcony, Row EE (hint: buy tickets earlier).

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.)

Grant Woods gets a standing ovation, Herberger Theatre Center, May 7, 2013.

Grant Woods gets a standing ovation, Herberger Theatre Center, May 7, 2013.

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.

8 the Play bare stage

8 play by Dustin Lance Black in AZAn Arizona production of a nationally recognized play will be staged next Tuesday, May 7, and include a cast of leading residents, including at least three attorneys. As of April 11, three local attorneys had agreed to perform: Bill Sheppard, Nicole Stanton and Grant Woods. Others who were slated include Cindy McCain.

The play, titled “8,” was written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and it “chronicles the historic federal trial challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.” A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected in late June.

A play written about a court case? Well, it’s in good company (try To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind and 12 Angry Men, for starters).

Tickets are $50 and $35 and can be purchased through the Arizona Theatre Company or Ticketmaster. As organizers say, “Following the performance, there will be a short discussion between Black, others and the audience on the issues presented in the trial.”

You can read more about the play here.

In a New York Times story, the writer described the play and his process:

“The play consists mostly of verbatim dialogue and statements from the trial transcript, [writer Dustin Lance] Black said, as well as his own observations from sitting in the courtroom most days and interviewing people on both sides of the case.”

“Roughly a dozen people from the trial are portrayed as characters, including Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, the lawyers for the two gay couples who sued California over the ban; Charles J. Cooper, the lead defense counsel; Kristin M. Perry and Sandra B. Stier, a lesbian couple who were among the plaintiffs; and the judge, Vaughn R. Walker of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California.”

“Mr. Black, who won an Oscar in 2009 for his original screenplay about the life and assassination of Harvey Milk, a gay man on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said he became determined to write the play after the United States Supreme Court blocked the trial judge’s plan to broadcast the hearings over the Internet.”

And here is how the producers describe the legally based play:

Dustin Lance Black Prop 8 play

Dustin Lance Black

“‘8’—a new play by Academy-award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar)—demystifies the debate around marriage equality by chronicling the landmark trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Hollingsworth v. Perry). Learn about the historical context of marriage from expert testimony. See the human cost of discrimination. Uncover the arguments used to justify bans on marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Using the actual court transcripts from the landmark federal trial of California’s Prop. 8 and firsthand interviews, ‘8’ shows both sides of the debate in a moving 90-minute play.”

“The Arizona production of ‘8’ announced the addition of five leading Valley residents to the cast.  Local actor Damon Bolling, producer/singer David Burrola, former TV news anchor Marlene Galan, former State Representative Steve May and Phoenix attorney and arts advocate Bill Sheppard will join the previously announced cast members for the May 7 presentation of ‘8’ at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.”

“Previous cast members announced include Black, Tony-nominated Broadway actor Rory O’Malley, CNN and ESPN commentator LZ Granderson and LGBT activist and AIDS Memorial Quilt creator Cleve Jones. Arizonans in the cast include business and community leader Cindy McCain, attorney and Phoenix First Lady Nicole Stanton, radio and TV personality Pat McMahon, former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, State Senator Jack Jackson Jr. and Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot.”

“‘8’ will be produced by the Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) and directed by Matthew Wiener, Producing Artistic Director of Actors Theatre-Phoenix. Former Tempe mayor and current San Francisco AIDS Foundation Chief Executive Officer Neil Giuliano is the executive producer.”

Again, here is the ticket information, through the Arizona Theatre Company or Ticketmaster.

Follow the Arizona production of “8” on Facebook.

Have a great weekend.