The progressive theologian Marcus Borg, when considering Biblical literalism, once said, “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” He was trying to get a fundamental distinction between what factual events actually transpired, and what we can learn from a story, factually inaccurate though the story may be, that speaks to our hearts. And that’s the heart of the conflict in The Lifespan of a Fact
Based on real events, the story deals with a young intern, Jim Fingal (John Kroft), assigned by his editor, Emily Penrose (Constance Macy), to a seemingly simple task. The magazine for which they work is scheduled to publish an essay by writer John D’Agata (Ben Cherry) addressing suicide in Las Vegas, and Fingal has five days to fact-check the work. But when Fingal finds multiple facts that seem inaccurate or lacking in documentation, he decides to go directly to the source—D’Agata himself. And the veteran writer isn’t happy with the kid who seems to want to change his words just because a few inconvenient facts are getting in the way of a great story.
The play’s central conflict might easily have turned into something heady and purely theoretical, so it’s a delight to find that it’s also often terrifically funny. Kroft is the cast’s standout, conveying both the gung-ho demeanor of a high achiever and the self-satisfied certainty of someone who grew up with privilege, and his scenes with Cherry’s D’Agata crackle with the fundamentally opposed world-views of the two men. Macy gets a role that’s more of a referee between the other two, but she finds an interesting place between the standards of an experienced journalist and someone whose personal experience might point her towards letting those standards shift in service of what feels like a greater purpose.
What’s most fascinating about The Lifespan of a Fact
is that it’s not exactly about “fake news,” but does address some of the contemporary factors behind that idea’s prevalence. Fingal’s perspective as a Millennial is a different one from the older professionals with whom he’s clashing, because he understands that it has become almost too easy to find cracks in anything you want to discredit. The idea of whether a story conveys a fundamental truth about the world doesn’t seem to matter to those who grew up with the ability to Google any detail instantly, and The Lifespan of a Fact
feels like a kind of eulogy for writing that uses real facts to probe at something deeper than those facts.
The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what the play itself is. Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell adapted a stage presentation from a book by D’Agata and Fingal, which itself was a chronicle of communication between the two men about the fact-checking process. This dramatization isn’t about what happened, but about what it meant. When these characters share a silence that may or may not have occurred exactly the way D’Agata wrote it, the experience is almost spiritual. That’s the kind of feeling you get when, even if you don’t know that something happened, you know that it’s true.