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Truth Battles Fact in Stage West’s The Lifespan of a Fact

Fort Worth's Stage West Theatre tackles alternative facts in a new play.
Fort Worth's Stage West Theatre tackles alternative facts in a new play.
Evan Michael Woods
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The Lifespan of a Fact, a play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, begins with a perplexing spew of facts, none of which makes any sense. The audience hears something about a suicide in Las Vegas, a chicken playing tic-tac-toe, the phrase “Buckets of Blood” (which ends up being the name of a bar) — what does all that nonsense mean? Have no fear. The words are repeated many times throughout the play, and the audience comes to understand their significance more with every re-utterance.

That nonsense makes up the first sentence of an essay that is at the center of Lifespan’s plot. Renowned essayist John D’Agata (played by Chris Hury) has written a brilliant piece whose publication date has just been moved up to five days from the beginning of the play. The magazine’s editor, played by Dana Schultes, needs to get the essay fact-checked, and fast. She calls upon overeager Harvard graduate Jim Fingal (Evan Michael Woods) to do the job. Sounds like a potentially mind-numbing plot — to most of the audience, fact-checking surely seems a tedious and mundane practice. Will the rest of the play merely see Woods’ character sit at his computer, running the many facts presented in the essay through his fact-checking algorithm?

In fact (no pun intended), this puzzling premise sets up a suspenseful play that is compelling morally and philosophically. And it’s hilarious, too. Technically, this production is spot-on. For fear of spoiling some of the fun of the play, little should be said about the set design (by Clare Floyd DeVries), other than that it is brilliantly executed — anyone who goes to see the play will understand why. Its 90 minutes (plus a 15-minute intermission) are perfectly paced with a balance of humor and meaning. Under the direction of Marianne Galloway, the play re-creates the spirit of newsroom screwball comedies like His Girl Friday. The triad of actors quickly develop a snide rapport with each other, wittily bantering their way through an either extremely trivial or extremely significant battle over facts.

And their argument matters for the real world. Should artistic nonfiction be held to journalistic standards? Surrendering factual accuracy means that you can’t really trust anything you read. This is especially relevant in today’s world of fake news and alternative facts. If readers know that they can’t trust every basic fact in an article or essay, then what reason do they have to trust its more important facts and ideas?

Hury’s character, the writer, presents arguments both from a place of deep emotion and of logic to persuade us of his perspective: an essay is true if it evokes the right emotions, not if it’s factually accurate (and we don’t even know what factual accuracy is). Facts trivialize truth; so, facts should be subordinated. While defending his essay, D’Agata’s emotions range from borderline psychotic to sensitive and empathetic; to portray such drastic changes with nuance and humor takes a skill that Hury certainly exhibits. This leaves his arguments convincing, and even preferable from an emotional standpoint. It would be lovely if tiny factual errors didn’t stand in the way of artistic intent.

On the other side of the argument, the fact-checker convinces us of the necessity of accuracy in an age of internet conspiracy theorists. If somebody finds one factual error in an essay, they can find ways to dismantle even the centrally true themes of the essay. Minor factual errors can compromise the validity of an entire piece; it’s out of a desire to maintain the essay’s integrity as a whole that Jim nitpicks little facts.

The two sides of this debate are met in the middle by the editor of the magazine, who is preparing to publish the central essay. In a way, she represents the audience. We, like her, have to listen to two stubborn intellectuals butt heads over minuscule details, and we, like her, have to decide what matters more: clear-cut factual truth or messy human truth. How does she, and how do we, decide?

The play has every detail necessary to present its point, entertain its audience and provoke thoughts that will linger long after the curtain falls. Its flaw, however, is that it has a few more details than necessary. Consider a certain gag that introduces the play: the editor of the magazine writes an email, and the words she types are projected on a screen above her head. While moderately funny, the gag primarily brings our attention to any misstep in the actor’s delivery. The mistakes are insignificant; without a screen showing us what words the actor was supposed to say, we would have no idea a mistake was made. But because of the screen, it’s impossible not to notice these errors. Ultimately, it’s distracting rather than humorous or scene-setting. The gag is repeated later in the play to a very humorous and more significant effect, making its presence at the beginning utterly unnecessary.

There are also extraneous details on the side of pathos. Schultes’ character, the editor, undergoes unnecessary emotional development that has little to do with the plot; to include such details (for perhaps no other reason than to endear the character to us) undermines Schultes’ ability to express a wealth of emotional depth without the added baggage of a barely related personal history. Contrarily, Jim the fact-checker displays an occasional abrupt lack of empathy — at one point, he finds himself unable to understand why anybody would want to commit suicide. Perhaps this is supposed to enhance his type-A, cold-hard-truth-obsessed personality, or perhaps it serves to remind the audience of Jim’s youth and privilege. But Woods already portrays these aspects of Jim’s character excellently. Neither these actors nor these characters need additional stuffing.

The problems with The Lifespan of a Fact have been easily enumerated, but it’s impossible to present every good trait the play has to offer. That in itself is a commendation. There are many reasons to go and see The Lifespan of a Fact, and very few reasons not to. Catch it at Stage West Theatre through Dec. 8.

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