Theater Review: The Lifespan of a Fact
What is the sum of a person’s life? What facts will be used to tell their story after they’re gone? And who determines the “truth” of that narrative?
Based on the essay and book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, The Lifespan of a Fact explores these questions. The play’s focus is an essay about the last day of Levi Presley, a teenage boy who committed suicide by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas.
This incident itself, a true story, might initially seem off-putting. But Director D. Terry Williams’ staging of the story around a magazine essay based on Levi Presley’s actions, is lively, often upbeat, contains moments of appropriate humor, and holds its audience to the very end.
Williams’ production provides insight into the way that good stories are created, edited, and told, in both print and in the theatre itself.
What could have been a tedious drill-down into minutia, becomes, in this play and production, a fascinating examination of the process used to evaluate and reconstruct Levi Presley’s final moments, for the magazine’s readership and the theatre audience.
Early in the show, writer John D’Agata, asserts in his essay that on the day Levi Presley took his own life, there were 34 strip clubs operating in Las Vegas. When confronted by the magazine’s fact checker, D’Agata admits he knew there were really only 31. Why is that or any of the other of D’Agata’s spurious details in his essay important?
The play suggests that the details selected for telling any story have a profound effect on the way we look at our own lives and judge the lives of others.
The play’s action centers around magazine editor Emily Penrose, as well as characters based on real-life journalists, essay writer, John D’Agata and fact-checker, Jim Fingal. The trio undertake a weekend reconsideration of D’Agata’s essay on Levi Presley’s death.
Their aim is the creation of a final piece that is both accurate as well as engaging for the magazine’s readers. As the play progresses this challenge seems more and more daunting.
Laurie Carter Rose presents a competent and astute New York editor. As Emily Penrose, she clearly conveys her expectations to the magazine’s new fact checker, Jim Fingal, portrayed eagerly and energetically by Myles Schwarz.
How could she know that her directive to this intern, fresh out of Harvard, would create “Factzilla”? But that’s the case as Schwarz’s character turns into a veritable fact check monster, challenging seemingly meaningless details of writer D’Agata’s article, such as the color of the bricks at the foot of the Stratosphere Tower on the afternoon of Levi Presley’s fatal jump.
Paul Stroili, as D’Agata, is at first mildly annoyed with Fingal’s questions about his essay. Later, after Fingal winds up couch surfing in D’Agata’s Las Vegas home, Stroili’s character shifts to a more vehement and personal defense of his essay.
After joining them, Rose’s character successfully meets the challenge of wearing several hats: editor, mediator, negotiator, referee and time keeper, as she coaxes D’Agata and Fingal toward a final draft by the 8 a.m. Monday deadline.
The three actors provide vivid character interactions and heated debate about the consequences of running the story when the presses roll. As they brandish the facts, each of their convincing characters appears as proudly committed to pursuing the truth. But in this play truth is elusive.
With a deadline approaching, the characters try a different method to gain insight into the truth about the deceased teenager. What follows is one of the most gut-wrenching and revelatory sequences I’ve witnessed in the theatre in recent memory. Seated side by side on a couch, the trio silently reimagines the fading light of the final sunset seen from Levi Presley’s eyes atop the tower. In the 48 seconds that pass, no words are spoken. None are necessary. No facts are needed.
Upon leaving the invited dress rehearsal I attended, “Dragnet” Detective Joe Friday’s words came to mind: “Just the facts, ma’am”. After seeing “The Lifespan of a Fact” this thought occurred: Perhaps in his pursuit of the truth, Detective Friday was barking up the wrong tree.