LIFESPAN OF A FACTBy Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell
Based on the book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
Director - Marianne Galloway+
Production Stage Manager - Megan Beddingfield*
Assistant Director - Madison Calhoun
Set Design - Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Design - Bryan Stevenson
Costume Design - Hannah Martinez
Sound Design - Marco Salinas
Projection Design - Tristan Decker
Props/Set Decor - Lynn Lovett
Technical Director - Ziggy Renner
Shop Foreman - Karlee Perego
Master Electrician - John Traxler
Assistant Stage Manager - Flower Avila
Assistant Costume Designer - Ryenne Bishop
Fight Choreography - Chris Hury
John D'Agata - Chris Hury*
Emily Penrose - Dana Schultes*
Jim Fingal - Evan Michael Woods**
* Member of Actors Equity Association
** Equity Membership Candidate
+ Member, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
Reviewed Performance: 11/16/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In 2012, essayist John D’Agata and his erstwhile factchecker Jim Fingal co-authored a book about, well, factchecking. Fast-forward to 2018 (hmm, what happened in the interim), and three playwrights have based a Broadway play of the same name upon this book. The play is thoroughly original. Two of the three main characters are the two authors of the book on which the story is based. I do not think I have seen anything like it.
The play opens with the crisply put together magazine editor Emily (a gorgeous Dana Schultes), dashing out an email to her staff: she has selected an important essay, perfect for the Zeitgeist, and she needs a factchecker. We later learn that in a “restructuring” of the magazine, the fact checking department has been eliminated. Thus, a box of red pens needs to be awarded to the lucky intern who gets the assignment.
Enter the awkward, inexperienced Jim (Evan Michel Woods). He name drops “The Crimson,” as the source of his prior experience, expecting Emily to duly fawn over his Harvard credentials. She does not. The dialogue is wickedly funny, and the play gets funnier as the fundamental miscommunication in this first conversation unfolds.
When Emily gives Jim the assignment of fact checking a prominent author’s beautiful essay about a teen who jumped to his death from a Vegas hi-rise hotel, she does not define factchecking. It sounds like she does (if someone is named, check that they exist; this author takes liberties). We think we heard her define his duties, but did she really? What about the feel of a draft, or the state of random traffic, or the inconsequential color of bricks? She is certainly very clear on the deadline though: Monday morning. What are Jim’s weekend plans? None. Good.
Jim is so comically awkward that we suspect he is overprivileged, lazy and/or incompetent. Woods is completely immersed in Jim’s energetic unsophistication, and he also makes the burgeoning evidence of Jim’s manic intelligence completely convincing. (I had seen Woods as a Tennessee Williams lothario, and he is unrecognizable by comparison; a clearly talented character actor).
The next day, as Emily rapidly cycles through phone calls and messages, Jim appears with an ominous list of questions about the article’s accuracy. But Emily is only half listening, as she needs to rush off to a meeting. She does tell him that there is nothing more important than the story, and this she means. One challenge with the character of Emily is that sometimes she does not mean what she says (e.g., loyally describing the unacceptable elimination of the fact checking department as if it were acceptable restructuring), and sometimes she does (there is nothing more important than story; it is how you organize your life). Schultes does a good job cuing the difference, and with showing us Emily’s overarching devotion to the magazine.
Emily will not tell Jim her own story, and tries to hide the picture on her desk. Too overworked to focus on the issues Jim raises, Emily directs Jim to contact the author. Jim can be intelligent and polite, she reasons, so that communication should go okay, right?
We see it coming, but it is still hilarious, when essayist John (Chris Hury) does not welcome the factchecker’s questions. One of the marvelous tensions in this play is the way the two characters ratchet up their enmity toward one another, yet both men remain sympathetic throughout their increasingly ferocious disagreements. Hury is adorably grumpy. When he comically growls that Jim has overestimated his importance in this process, we accept it as true but also suspect John’s motives.
The vehicle of various impersonal communication methods in contemporary work is also on display. Typed messages appear on a screen above the actors’ heads, and there is a comic bit when Woods has already mis-labeled the essay as an “article” before Emily’s message warning him otherwise. The characters ultimately do inhabit the same space, and the surprise set change alone is worth the price of admission.
Jim has become completely obsessed, and comically teeters under the weight of his overstuffed backpack, which even includes an easel and whiteboard map. In a matter of days, Jim has produced a hundred plus page spreadsheet complaining about the inaccuracies in John’s beautiful, yet fact-impaired, fifteen-page essay. Emily, on the phone in her P.J.s on the Sunday morning before the Monday deadline, scrolls through the spreadsheet, is able to shrug off several items, but then decides she has to show up with her laptop to fix the essay or halt its publication. Emily brings the staff in on a Sunday to work up a piece about Congressional Spouses as Plan B, but she truly wants to publish John’s meaningful, poignant prose.
At the end the audience gets to vote on whether the essay should be published, and while I personally did not find this a close call (times being what they are), Hury magnificently succeeds in portraying the underlying sincerity and humanity in a man who takes “liberty” with the facts.
What is the size of Great Britain, John asks? If you draw a big, symmetrical oval around the most far-flung points, then is that too large; should the line be drawn closer? But the closer the line is drawn, the longer the line becomes: there are so many coves and inlets where peninsulas are formed, such that precisely tracing the coastline in and out will make the circumference increase the closer you get. This is one way in which Johns makes the argument for not killing a good story with the facts. Hury adroitly delivers this disquisition with more passion than arrogance.
For her part, Emily asks if they can just minimize the inaccuracies to a level of acceptable post-hoc corrections on half (she assumes only half of the untruths will be found out). She also frets about the paper trail and whether lawyers will be able to draft a narrative of her willful indifference.
But there is also a moral debate here: this is a beautiful essay about a tragedy, and if John is allowed his literary license, then readers will stop and consider the story of a young man’s suicide. And while John is clearly in love with his language (he knows the essay by heart), he also believes that the young man called the suicide hotline when John was volunteering in place of his now-deceased mother. John is ultimately revealed as a dutiful son with a stack of bluebooks to grade, rather than the blustering prima donna author that we first hear on the phone.
Jim is at his wit’s end trying to explain why facts matter. This type of negligence is responsible for 4chan, he argues; you cannot deviate from facts that are documented in verifiable sources. To Jim, the essay is beautiful, but it is not publishable. And, he is not just saying this because he was stuffed in a closet and strangled.
The costumes are first rate, and I particularly loved the power dress Emily sports in her opening scenes. Even her travel clothes are elegantly dressed down.
The set is exemplary, with a kitchen-living room combo outfitted with realistic home accoutrements. John’s late mother’s walker is still in evidence. The kitchen includes canisters, hanging baskets with fruit, and a Mr. Coffee maker. Bad floral still-lifes hang on garish turquoise walls, and magazines and papers are realistically stacked. The light and sound design work well in facilitating the action, and the Stage West seats are super comfortable.
Based on a “true-ish story,” The Lifespan of a Fact, as brought to us in Stage West Theatre’s regional premiere, is as funny as it is thought provoking. The actors are wonderfully, completely immersed in their intense characters, and the fast-paced direction makes this a crowd pleaser. I highly recommend this production for the unique script, exemplary acting, and the intelligent and timely subject matter.
Stage West Theatre
November 7, 2019 to December 8, 2019: Thursdays 7:30 p.m., Fridays & Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sundays 3:00 p.m. [No show on Thanksgiving]
821/823 W. Vickery Blvd, Fort Worth, Texas 761014
For information and Tickets call 817 784-9378 or go to https://stagewest.org/season/lifespan-fact.