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The Lifespan of a Fact
by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell
Based on the Book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 18, 2019

Griffin Osborne, Brian Slaten
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

“What is truth?” That’s a question that’s been asked by many at various times and in various settings, from the Bible (John 18:38), to philosophical treatises, to journalism, to politics, and beyond. The latest production from the Rep, The Lifespan of a Fact, explores this question from a writer’s, and editor’s perspective, also parsing out the difference between “facts” and “truth” and whether or not there is (or should be) any difference. It’s also a fast-paced, well-constructed and frequently funny look at its characters and their conflicts, staged with the Rep’s usual excellence in casting and production values.

The Lifespan of a Fact starts on a fairly typical business day for a magazine, as editor Emily Penrose (Perri Gaffney) is preparing to publish a new essay by celebrated writer John D’Agata (Brian Slaten). She praises the essay for its beauty, intensity, and truth, but as part of the regular publishing process, she enlists an intern, Jim Fingal (Griffin Osborne) to fact-check the piece. That’s where things get complicated, because Fingal turns out to be more zealous in his efforts than Emily expected, and John isn’t particularly receptive to Jim’s questioning, especially at first. The subject matter of the essay is a serious one–a Las Vegas Teenager’s suicide, and John wants to give the topic the weight that it calls for, but Jim keeps finding problems with the details. The quirky, somewhat intense Jim makes charts, draws diagrams, and researches the tiniest details to make sure John hasn’t taken liberties with the facts, eventually finding all sorts of discrepancies, from the seemingly insignificant to more important issues. Eventually, all three characters end up at John’s house in Las Vegas, and the questions keep coming. How much fudging of the facts is allowed in pursuit of a “true” story? Is the writer’s quest for a dramatically told, well-crafted story foiled by facts? Is there such a thing as writing the “essence of truth” without sticking to all the minute details? And which details are minute and which aren’t? Those questions and more are explored in this fast-paced, character-driven piece. The tone is mostly comedic, although are dramatic and poignant moments as well. Mostly, it’s a clash of personalities and philosophies, and ethical standards. It’s a fascinating topic of discussion, and it’s personified well in this “inspired by a true story” tale.

I think most, if not all, writers will recognize the dilemma–the need to tell the well-crafted story while accurately representing the facts. Also, what’s the difference between a “non-fiction” essay and a news article? And is rigorous, down-to-the-last-detail fact-checking necessary, or does it hinder the author’s creative process? This is a compelling story in that it represents both positions–John’s vs. Jim’s–while also providing a “middle ground” in the form of Emily, who wants the best for her magazine and serves as something of a mediator between the two positions. The cast is especially well-chosen, with Osborne’s quirky, frenetic Jim and Slaten’s stubborn, occasionally arrogant John providing much of the show’s dramatic and comedic energy, with Gaffney’s initially more measured, gradually exasperated Emily providing an able foil to both.

The staging is fast-paced, and well-served by Arnel Sancianco’s remarkably versatile quick-changing set that utilizes the Rep’s stage and newer technical features well as the locations switch between the minimally decorated magazine office and John’s cluttered home. Kathleen Geldard’s costumes suit the characters well, and Paul Toben’s lighting adds to the overall atmosphere of the production and serves to isolate characters and their situations as needed. There’s also excellent sound design by Christian Frederickson.

Overall, this show doesn’t really answer any of the questions it raises, but that would be a much bigger task than a simple three-character play can tackle, and it’s one that humankind will continue to struggle with through the ages. The question of facts vs. truth is also an especially timely topic in today’s society, and it’s well-personified here. I don’t think the purpose is to answer the questions, though, as much as it is to keep the audience asking, and considering them. The Lifespan of a Fact is sure to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion, and I think that’s the point.

Brian Slaten, Perri Gaffney, Griffin Osborne
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Lifespan of a Fact until November 10, 2019

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