Just the facts

03Sep19

When is a fact not a fact? And how much does the pure, empirical truth matter? Those are the questions at the heart of the current Gloucester Stage offering, The Lifespan of a Fact. They are questions that have long concerned writers and readers (and not just since Nov. 8, 2016, contrary to partisan political interpretations).

Gloucester Stage is the first theater in the country to produce the highly acclaimed The Lifespan of a Fact since last year’s successful Broadway run, which featured Danielle Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannevale. Under the direction of veteran stage, film and television director Sam Weisman, Gloucester Stage presents the regional premier of this ultimate clash between truth and fiction.

Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the play poses a fascinating question. When – or is – the chronicler of actual events allowed to shade or even change small details of the story if it helps him to get to a higher truth?

That’s the dilemma facing the play’s three characters: John D’Agata, the essayist (played by Mickey Solis); Jim Fingal, the rigorous fact-checker (Derek Speedy); and Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), the editor of the struggling magazine eager to publish a piece by one of the country’s foremost essayists but wary of D’Agata’s tendency to “take liberties” with the details of a story in the service of style, rhythm and the effect he wants to achieve.

Editor Emily knows that in today’s struggling magazine market, an essay by a writer of John D’Agata’s stature is a prize she can ill afford to lose. At the same time, the magazine’s razor-thin profit margins could not withstand a lawsuit brought on by John’s habit of pushing of the factual envelope. The magazine’s fact-checking department has long since been sacrificed to budget cuts, so Emily brings in Jim Fingal, a hotshot freelance fact-checker fresh out of Harvard who convinces her that he’s just the nitpicker to clean up John D’Agata’s brilliant essay.

As you may have noticed by now, there is meta quality to the proceedings. The characters of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, while fictionalized in the play, in real life are the writers of the essay and book upon which the play is based. It adds another fascinating layer to the question of using factual revisionism to get at a story’s greater truths.

It’s a question very familiar to journalists, who want to be read, and readers, who want to be told the truth but also want to be entertained. It’s why a provocative opinion column will always garner more readers and generate more reaction than a just-the-facts news account of a City Council or School Board meeting, even if today’s younger readers, not weaned on newspapers, can’t always appreciate the difference.
When fact-checker Jim starts questioning details of John’s essay about Levi, a teenager who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas tower, tensions predictably flare, and Emily must assume a role closer to referee than editor – especially after Jim bizarrely shows up on John’s Las Vegas doorstep with a litany of questions.

For example, in his essay, John mention’s in passing that there are 34 strip joints in Las Vegas, while Jim’s fact-checking finds that there are only 31. John feels strongly that the number 34 improves the flow of the prose and is a detail that is of no consequence to the account of a young person’s suicide.

But what about when John’s essay recounts the causes of other deaths that that supposedly occurred in Las Vegas on the same day? As a literary device, he lists them in the form of a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, with the “2” representing two suicides by hanging. But Jim discovers that only one of the other two suicides on that day was by hanging. The other was also a jump from a building. John admits that he changed it to fit into his “countdown.” Also, he wanted Levi to be unique as the only one who jumped to his death that day. Should the cause of a person’s death subject to a writer’s literary license?

As Jim uncovers other inconsistencies of varying significance, Emily must fly out to Vegas to rein in Jim’s obsessive thoroughness and keep John from literally throttling Jim.

While there’s plenty of dramatic tension, the play is more comedy than tragedy, despite the subject matter of the essay at its center. There are some great one-liners, mainly in the form of barbs exchanged between John and Jim.

In the midst of being cross examined by Jim about the accuracy of his essay, John acknowledges that he teaches writing at the University of Nevada.

“Creative writing?” Jim pointedly asks.

In another self-reflective angle, Jim Fingal’s fresh-out-of-Harvard fact-checker is played by fresh-out-of-Harvard actor Derek Speedy, who turns in the best performance here. His Jim is quirky but committed, and Speedy brings the highest level of energy to his performance.

A fascinating and entertaining exploration of the ways in which writers and their readers try to get to the truth, The Lifespan of a Fact is well-worth 90 minutes of your time.

And that’s the truth.

The Lifespan of a Fact runs through Sept. 22 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or call the Gloucester Stage Box Office at 978-281-4433.

Photos by Jason Grow.



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