“The wrong facts get in the way of the story,” claims writer John D’Agata (Colin Smith) in the midst of a heated discussion with fact checker Jim Fingal (Iván Carlo) in “The Lifespan of a Fact,” directed by Susan Marie Rhea and playing now at The Keegan Theatre. It is D’Agata’s belief that nuance in journalism is overlooked. He questions the impact of facts versus nuanced interpretation on readers’ ability to empathize and, perhaps, be moved to action by a story. He complains that “facts look down their nose at ambiguity.” This highly complex and topical thesis is explored in a brief 85 minutes in the play by Jeremy Kareke, David Murell, and Gordon Farrell. It doesn’t always succeed in clearly making its point, but there are a number of “aha” moments and the actors are engaging.
…there are a number of “aha” moments and the actors are engaging.
Mathew J. Keenan’s ingenious set design first invites us into the east coast office of a VIJ (very important journal) where editor Emily Penrose (Sheri S. Herren) is multitasking at her desk preparing to send the next issue to publication. She is interrupted by the new intern, Jim, fresh out of Harvard—The Crimson is his most significant journalism credit to date. Jim is obsessed with his assignment fact-checking an almost-ready-to-print article by a famous essayist about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas. It is an article Emily is ready to approve, but assigns it to Jim to keep him busy and out of her way. The action moves seamlessly among the office, Jim’s apartment, and D’Agata’s Las Vegas house without moving a single piece of furniture. Props are all preset on stage waiting in full view as ornaments until they are pulled into functional activity as needed.
Taking initiative, Jim decides to fly out to Vegas to question D’Agata about certain things mentioned in the story—150 facts (to be as precise as Jim) that don’t add up when weighed against a down-to-the second timeline, sources of questionable integrity, and one sad event D’Agata has clearly manipulated for emotional impact. At first, Jim seems like an annoying nerd who can’t see the forest for the trees, but when he stumbles over one huge log of inaccuracy, a harsh spotlight is thrown on D’Agata’s essay. It is Jim’s dogged pursuit of facts that drives the story forward. Jeremy Bennett’s glorious projections fly us into Vegas. all the way down to the very house where Jim confronts D’Agata—a symbolic devolution from the big picture to the small, with bristling facts at the heart of the matter.
The script never answers the question: should D’Agata’s interest in truth rather than accuracy be prioritized over Jim’s insistence that lies are wrong? This veers dangerously near “truthiness.” There are several promising threads initiated that don’t really go anywhere but might have been explored more fully in a longer script. Why is Emily so detached from the story until the very end of the play? What is the significance of the photo on her desk that reminds her of a missed opportunity? Why is D’Agata so intent on comforting the dead boy’s parents at the expense of the facts? Reference is made to D’Agata being a volunteer on a suicide hotline but this seems awfully convenient and is not used effectively in the story.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” presents important questions about the use of language to clarify or obscure the truth. I wish the authors had allowed themselves more space to dissect and reveal what is most important about journalism and all story telling. I, for one, would be happy to spend two hours or more in the theatre.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
“The Lifespan of a Fact” runs through February 25, 2023 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036. Ticket can be purchased here, by phone at 202-265-3767, or in person at the Keegan Theatre Box Office, which opens on the day of the show one hour prior to the performance.
COVID health and safety requirements: Masks are optional but encouraged for all visitors. Although The Keegan Theatre encourages all patrons to get vaccinated if they are able, they will not be checking the vaccination records of patrons.