By David Greenham
In a taut 90 minutes, The Lifespan of a Fact zeroes in on some key issues that we’re grappling with as a country — or ought to be.
The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. Based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Directed by Sam Weisman. Staged by the Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, through September 22.
Giuliani: And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth …
Todd: Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like ―
Giuliani: No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth.
Rudy Giuliani and Meet The Press Host Chuck Todd on the topic of the President being interviewed by special counsel Robert Muller.
Gloucester Stage is very excited to present the regional premiere of The Lifespan of a Fact. The script is certainly relevant: like an interview with any member of the president’s staff, you’ll hear statements that challenge your fundamental (and apparently naïve) understanding of truth, facts, and journalistic integrity.
The play is based on real events . . . well, mostly. In July of 2002 a young man named Levi Pressley climbed over the security fence at the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas and jumped to his death. That’s a fact.
Writer John D’Agata was assigned by a magazine to write an essay about the high rate of suicides in “Sin City.” The piece was passed over by editors because the author had taken too many liberties with the facts. When his initial 15 page essay, What Happens There, was published five years later it had grown into a book that included most of the exchanges between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the fact checker for Believer, a literature, arts, and culture magazine. The story was then reworked by a team of writers into a play, which enjoyed a Broadway run last winter with an all-star cast.
The plot’s key characters are writer John D’Agata (Mikey Solis) and fact checker Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy). The pair of “real life” figures are joined by an invented figure — probably more accurately, a composite character — Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), an editor for a glossy magazine that is interested in publishing What Happens There. The gifted author D’Agata has written a “moving, meaningful, rare piece of writing.” However, some of the details don’t add up. Penrose has assigned the young and ambitious Fingal to do a quick fact check of the basics. It’s midweek and she’d like it on her desk by Monday.
By Saturday Fingal has created a 130-page spreadsheet of problematic issues he’s uncovered in the 15-page essay. Unfortunately for him, D’Agata insists, “I’m not beholden to every detail of the story.” This conflict between fact and truth — your classic irresistible force/immovable object paradox — is The Lifespan of a Fact.
The modest goal of this interesting script is not to posit a solution, but to make the viewer consider all sides. Mission accomplished, because by the time the author declares “I’m not interested in accuracy, I’m interested in the truth,” and the fact-checker responds “facts have to be the final measure of the truth,” most audiences members will be firmly planted somewhere in the middle, with a fair comprehension of both points of view. Veteran director Sam Weisman and the trio of actors carry this aspect of the drama off well. In a taut 90 minutes, The Lifespan of a Fact zeroes in on some key issues that we’re grappling with as a country — or ought to be.
The dramaturgical flaw here lies in an unremarked irony. These three characters — two of whom are based on real people — are single-minded in their focus and arguments. No one really shifts their perspective; in fact, they don’t even really listen to each other. By the end they, and we, are worn down rather than riled up, fatigued rather than provoked.
Crouse’s Emily Penrose has a deadline to meet. She must decide between a beautifully written piece that’s inaccurate or a dull filler story that can be dropped in at the last minute. “The right story at the right time changes the way people live,” she insists, hoping she’s found one of those momentous narratives. Penrose is more than just a referee in this conflict; she’s also passionate about making every issue of her magazine the very best that it can be, while at the same time ensuring that it’s credible as well as marketable. Crouse embodies the internal conflict of the idealistic editor effectively.
Solis, as the self-centered writer D’Agata, is rooted in the aesthetics of his writing. “Wrong facts get in the way of the story,” he pleads. Details that probably won’t matter to the reader matter greatly to him. At the same time, details that should matter leave him unmoved, to Fingal’s (and our) frustration. Solis skillfully presents an unapologetic and self-obsessed author.
As the persnickety Fingal, Derek Speedy deftly portrays a character who recognizes that the way stories are told privileges some people and diminishes others. In truth (if I may use this word), his point of view most closely resembles mine in this debate. But, at the same time, he’s an irritating pest. It’s no wonder the defensive D’Agata digs in his heels about the details — or lack thereof. Speedy has the most challenging climb to make in the script, and the actor makes use of a deft hand to make his character palatable, using his comic timing to release some of the argumentative tension –- which helps us overlook some of the holes in the script.
The action of Gloucester Stage’s production begins in the stylish offices of the magazine, but then quickly jumps to a strangely bland condo in Las Vegas where D’Agata lives. While the settings by J Michael Griggs are sharp and clean, the Las Vegas location doesn’t seem to make much creative sense. It’s suggested that it’s the home of D’Agata’s mother. But it’s not lived in, regardless of who lived there.
Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes are likewise sharp, especially her clothing for Crouse’s stylish editor. At the performance I attended, Dewey Dellay’s efficient sound design had to compete with a very loud cricket who had set up shop somewhere in the stage house. The lighting and props by Marcy Barbeau and Lauren Corcuera are apt.
In the end, The Lifespan of a Fact takes us on a journey about a vital issue and then leaves us with a blackout: we have to guess what will happen next. What’s a little confusing is that we don’t have to guess. In this age of instantly gettable “facts,” we can Google what happened to these characters — and research how the play and the story it’s based on evolved.
Revealingly, there is an aspect of this play that makes it feel like the kind of red herring that we have learned to love as a society. If we spend our time arguing about the facts, and about how facts are presented, and about whether or not the story is factually accurate, it becomes a way to ignore the crisis we set out to consider in the first place. In the case of this story, D’Agata was hired in 2002 to examine the high rate of deaths by suicide in Las Vegas. Seventeen years later Las Vegas still has a suicide rate that’s three times higher than any other city in the country. As with so much that’s going on in America, someday we are going to have to stop arguing with each other — and act collectively on some inconvenient facts.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.