BWW Review: The Write Stuff: THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT at The Repertory Theatre St. Louis
The arrival of the Repertory Theatre St. Louis' production of The Lifespan of a Fact could not be better timed. Although set in 2003, its explorations of fiction versus nonfiction, fact versus embellishment and storytelling verses the truth could be ripped from the headlines of the modern world.
Coming to The Rep after massive success on Broadway and staged here after the intensity of Angels in America, The Lifespan of a Fact, while just as socially relevant, gives audiences a much-needed dose of brevity without compromising the company's determination to present great work. An upfront examination of how the news is created, digested and distilled by the media, The Lifespan of a Fact is a passionate homage to journalism and 'truthiness.'
An accomplished writer, John D' Agata appears to be in a great place. He's written a sensational essay, What Happens There, that depicts the Las Vegas' culture of suicide following the death of Levi Presley, a troubled teen who jumped from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel & Tower.
Now awaiting to be published by The Believer magazine, it is a powerful and emotional work that will undoubtedly resonate with readers. There's just one problem, the fact checker has found some irregularities.
Confronted by Jim Fingal, a seriously focused intern who has been on the job for six months, the arrogant D'Agata finds himself challenged for the first time. His 'article,' which he insists is an 'essay', includes the details of Presley's death alongside his personal recollections from working as a volunteer for the city's suicide prevention hotline. By doing this he hopes to engage readers about the subject through the lens of Presley and others like him.
Assigned to fact check the fifteen-page essay over a weekend, Fingal is thorough to the point of madness. Accumulating over 130 pages of notes on the piece he confronts the author about every seemingly minute detail, citing the importance of never straying from the facts. Filled with ethics, righteousness and a passion for setting the story straight, he is a menace for D'Agata who prefers to play fast and loose with details in order to achieve the desired emotional impact from his readers.
Once collided, the fact checker and author clash over nearly everything. To D'Agata, Fingal's devotion to his craft is infuriating. Tested and called on the rug repeatedly, he is clearly overwhelmed, annoyed and frustrated by his cross examination. To Fingal, D'Agata's work, although exceptional, is perturbingly inaccurate. Eager to do a good job, the young fact checker goes a little bit overboard, throwing everything into a maelstrom as he relentlessly fights for accuracy and honesty.
Directly in the line of fire between these two brash egos is The Believer's editor Emily Penrose. Beleaguered by their bickering, she carefully dances around the problem of getting things right and selling copies. Initially resolute in making deadline, she is familiar with D'Agata's prickly nature and muddying details. She also doesn't want to get sued, which is why she recruits Fingal to dot I's and cross T's.
Knowing that the D'Agata essay will cause quite a stir, the hard-nosed Penrose takes great care to make sure things are on the up and up. A fierce veteran of the newsroom, Penrose has no qualms with flexing her muscles in order to get things done. However, after intervening in D'Agata and Fingal's quarreling, she finds herself in a difficult situation that tests her ethics and professional integrity.
Based on the best-selling book (written by D'Agata and Fingal) and adapted for the stage by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, The Rep's version of The Lifespan of a Fact is a rapid-fire mix of the sublime and the sensational.
Heading an all-star creative team is director Meredith McDonough, an expert known for her prowess in presenting new works. Under her care Lifespan of a Fact is a tightly wound emotional production that uses biting comedy as a counterbalance for the deep dive it takes into the subjects of news gathering, fact finding and accuracy in media.
St. Louis native Brian Slaten debuts with The Rep as John D'Agata. Grumpy, self-assured and frustrated by the ongoing badgering from his fact checker, he give a terrific performance that perfectly blends comedy and determination with hints of melancholy, giving audiences a turn that epitomizes the artist as ego.
Equally up to the task is his sparring partner, Griffin Osborne. Excellent as the persnickety and obsessive Jim Fingal, he pours fuel on the fire in all the right ways. Osborne never lets his foot off the gas, making his fact checker a compelling catalyst for the unfolding drama.
Joining the ensemble is Perri Gaffney as the tough as nails editor Emily Penrose. Under her watch Penrose is resolute in her devotion to her job and responsibility to her readers. Gaffney's performance is the glue holding things together. Stuck between two warring nations onstage, she steals the show as she moderates skirmish after skirmish after skirmish. Making Penrose toughened by the publishing wars, she also pulls off the impossible; giving audiences a character that is a likable mom, boss and taskmaster.
Driven by a superb cast and creative team The Lifespan of a Fact is high water mark for The Rep's season. For nearly ninety minutes this triangular dynamic of morality, honesty and selling copies weaves a fascinating and compelling debate that never deviates from its core themes of probing the interplay between fact and fiction and how it affects those charged with distributing it. Pairing drama and comedic flourishes, like wine with a fine meal, The Lifespan of a Fact is an amazing work of theater.
The Lifespan of a Fact plays at the Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through November 10th. For showtimes and more information visit http://www.repstl.org