Encore Michigan

‘Lifespan of A Fact’ provokes lots of thought about truth in media

Review March 03, 2022 Julie Linderleaf

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–When does a fact stop being a fact? When it’s discovered to be an untruth, or when it’s admitted as an untruth? Or does it remain a fact if it’s accepted as truth?

The Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo tackled these very thought provoking questions in its most recent intriguing powerhouse production of The Lifespan of a Fact written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, and directed by D. Terry Williams February 17-27.

The show opens on a Wednesday in the office of a prominent New York magazine editor’s office. The Nancy Grace/Murphy Brownesque editor, played by Laurie Carter Rose, is interviewing fresh Harvard graduate Jim Fingal, played by Myles Schwarz, for a simple, but fast-deadline, fact-checking job. She gives him conflicting instructions: one second, she says confirm every detail, and the next just check for names, spellings, and date errors. Jim Fingal, the conscientious Harvard grad that he is, is determined to make a killer impression and focuses on confirming every detail.” He takes, what the editor calls, a potential award-winning essay, and begins to fact-check every detail on a harrowing Las Vegas teen suicide essay by famous east coast writer, John D’Agata (Paul Stroili).

Fingal struggles from the start. The first sentence alone has so many conflicting truths: were there 34 or 31 strip clubs in Vegas in 2002? Was a bottle of hot-sauce actually unearthed under a different building? Was the woman who beat a chicken named Ginger in a game of checkers actually from Mississippi? Again, the editor tells the fact-checker to “just check the basics,” and if he needs any extra help, contact the writer.

Fact: Merriam-Webster defines an essay as “an analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view.” Fact: Merriam-Webster also defines an article as “a non-fictional prose composition usually forming an independent part of a publication (such as a magazine).”

What’s the difference between the two? Is it just semantics or a lawsuit waiting to happen?
Jim Fingal seems way over his head trying to impress his editor with his fact checking skills–so far over his head that when Sunday comes, the day before deadline, we are in an entirely new setting. The New York magazine office walls slide open to reveal the simple, sparsely decorated Vegas living room with connected kitchen designed by Dan Guyette. John D’Agata is not a rich writer, as we have just a simple couch complete with a crocheted afghan and plastic fruit magnets on the fridge. D’Agata is on the phone with the editor and concerned that her fact-checker has taken hunting down the facts way too literally: so literally that D’Agata hands the phone to the lumpy afghan…a sleep-disheveled Jim Fingal who flew to Vegas to grill the writer in person.

While explaining that he had to come out to Las Vegas to actually see the red bricks(actually brown) on the Stratosphere Tower Hotel, the editor decides that she too needs to fly to Vegas to figure out in person what is actually going on with this potentially award winning essay she is counting on. The writer is quite upset that Fingal is not only in his home, but that he has the audacity to actually think that his work needs to be changed.

When the editor arrives, more facts are revealed that point to the D’Agata taking many “creative liberties” with his “essay”. More and more “facts” get uncovered, and we see a mounting case for Fingal’s concerns–that the writer is taking a lot of liberties with the truth of what happened to make the story fit the pattern he wants to convey “ Facts are negotiable.” Monday morning, the deadline for the piece and for the magazine to go to the printer, looms at the end of the play, leaving the audience to their own conclusions about who is right.

Remember what Merriam-Webster defines as an essay? “An interpretative literary composition”?  Are truth and facts really crucial?

Question: When a writer produces a finished product, is it in fact, perfectly finished or should it be fact-checked or edited?

There seems to be an entire sub-culture that wants to catch anyone doing or saying anything wrong. IT is a culture of attack-and-cancel.

The editor, a woman around long enough to have lived through the age of Walter Cronkite and The New York Times as the newspaper of record, as well as the newer age of 24-hour cable news and politically slanted “news” stations, is suddenly more cautious at what information can now stay in the article after learning that it really isn’t quite the “right” story. Can she print it and let the readers find the untruths and print a retraction after they are found?  Does she have the conscience to let it slide? Will publishing an essay, no matter how well written, hurt the magazine when it’s learned the “facts” are not air-tight?

The rest of the play is all in the details. Details that make the audience question why do facts even matter? This play brings more and more facts and untruths to the surface in the 90 minute production leaving the almost sell-out audience at Farmers Alley Theatre raving as they left. The ending fades away, not telling if the essay would be published or not. It would not surprise me if audience members went home and tried to do a bit of factchecking on their own. On the other hand, maybe some went home comfortable in their own media echo chamber with the notion that no facts are really facts, so it doesn’t matter.

I decided to check some facts about the play itself. I found out some intriguing facts about this play. This play actually began as the original essay this play is based on written by real-life author John D’Agata in 2003. There was an attempt to published it in Harper’s Magazine, but was actually published in The Believer in 2010 after being fact-checked and edited by the real Jim Fingal. Together, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal wrote the book “Lifespan of aFact,” on which this play is based. In 2018, the play landed on Broadway with a stellar cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Sherry Jones, and Bobby Cannavale.

Farmers Alley Theatre company once again picked a perfect show to make a night out to the theatre enjoyable in this crazy world we are fact checking our way through…or not. Lots of us have become comfortable choosing our network based on how we vote. Lots of us just take “news” and “information” from our Facebook or Twitter newsfeed no matter where it comes from.

It is a profound time to stage Lifespan of a Fact, a time when facts seem to be in the eyes of the beholder and the veracity of information seems to depend on what political party you follow.

Week of 8/15/2022

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