SALT LAKE CITY — “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information,” says John D’Agata in his essay, “What Happens There.” Read it; it’s superb. In D’Agata’s essay, he writes about the solemn subject of teen Levi Presley’s suicide of jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. D’Agata uses both numerical figures as well as emotional triggers, including using strategic literary structure and taking descriptive and numeric liberties to add to the effect of the content. Lifespan of Fact is a dramatization of the fact checking of D’Agata’s essay that asks what is fact and what is truth, are they the same, and which is more important? Pioneer Theatre Company’s interpretation of this gripping script is a powerful production that promotes excitement for contemporary theatre.
Crediting Lifespan of a Fact is a bit lengthy, as it is based on a book by D’Agata and Jim Fingal with stage adaptation by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordan Farrell. The play premiered on Broadway in 2018 with a star cast including Daniel Radcliffe. Lifespan of a Fact begins with wide-eyed Jim Fingal being tasked with fact checking the notoriously difficult to work with egotist John D’Agata’s essay. This hot-headed match up is refereed by magazine mogul Emily Penrose. Fingal as fact checker takes his job very seriously, so much so that he is verifying every minute detail down to the phase of the moon. D’Agata is seething in exasperation due to Fingal’s incessant auditing of his literary accomplishment. Meanwhile, Penrose struggles to corral the chaos and print a credible piece of work without stripping the essay of its humanity. This is an intriguing look into the publishing industry containing ethical dilemmas that can be extended to other careers and industries.
The script travels from a New York office to D’Agata’s modest home in Las Vegas, showing a tone transition from light and funny to deep and thoughtful. Wes Grantom’s directorial choices were pleasing, because watching the play felt like invading a private conversation. The staging of the show was successful in that each scene felt vivid and natural as the actors moved around the lifelike set. The set for D’Agata’s home (set design by Jo Winiarski) was very detailed and was an entirely convincing humble abode with pastel walls and out-of-date floral wallpaper. While themes of conflict and contrast flow in the surmounting argument of differences in perception verses intentional falsification, the resonance grows darker and deeper.
Each actor gave a commendable performance. John Kroft as Fingal properly exuded naivety as well as anger when passionately defending his agenda. He also had a great comedic presence. Ben Cherry as D’Agata successfully conveyed brilliance and cynicism in addition to conviction for meaningful writing. I enjoyed the scenes where Cherry as D’Agata reads from the essay and his fervor is palpable without overly dramatizing. Finally, as Emily Penrose, Constance Macy rose to the occasion as a strong and formidable corporate type. In a scene where Penrose’s personal life is questioned, Macy gives an appropriate response exposing a weakness in the characters tough exterior. Each actor had chemistry with the other two and each had an arc in which they emotionally displayed humor, angst, and vulnerability. At different times in the play, I sided with different opinions. When Cherry as D’Agata touts, “I’m not interested in accuracy. I am interested in truth,” I agree with him. Although I question that belief when Kroft as Fingal says, “by misrepresenting official and searchable documents, you undermine your argument, you undermine society’s trust in itself, which is why facts have to be the final measure of truth.” The current content with such potent acting and well-written script had me questioning my own values.
This script delivers important and relative questions and instead of telling me what to think or feel about the moral and editorial ambiguity, the director and cast showed me what to feel. In the last scene, Cherry as D’Agata reads directly from the essay, and he recounts Levi Presley’s last 60 seconds. The last line read was to the effect of Presley sitting uncertainly on the edge of the Stratosphere’s observation deck for 48 seconds before jumping. For 48 seconds of silence, there was hardly a breath or a stir in the entire theatre. It was astoundingly powerful, emotional, and thought-provoking. As a theater aficionado, it is this type of moving delivery that truly tugs at my empathies and questions my realities that keeps me coming back for more. This play was exceptional in all capacities. I cannot find a criticism of, or flaw in, Lifespan of a Fact, as they either were non-existent or the play was so engrossing that I failed to notice any.
Lifespan of a Fact is around a 95-minute, no intermission ride of laughs, critical thinking, and pathos. As the show does contain strong language and adult content, it is for a mature audience. I truly enjoyed the dissection of the lyrical essay that the play was based upon. I am still ruminating whether a truthful message or a factual representation is correct in non-fiction and journalism. Truth is, I can’t say enough about this production of Lifespan of a Fact. Fact is, you must go and see for yourself.