‘Lifespan of a Fact’ Explores the Dichotomy of Facts and Truth


Emily Penrose (Constance Macy) and Jim Fingal (John Croft) in an intense editing session (Courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company)

By Kate Button, Arts Writer, Copy Editor

Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for “Lifespan of a Fact”

In an era of disinformation, alternative facts and fake news, how do we determine what information is trustworthy or accurate? How does the truth — whatever that may be — impact our understanding of the world?

Presented by Pioneer Theatre Company, the Broadway hit play “The Lifespan of a Fact” explores these questions as an essayist, a fact-checking intern and a demanding editor all strive to pursue their own goals through the publication of an essay that discusses a teenager’s suicide.

John D’Agata (Ben Cherry) takes several creative liberties with his essay, and at times, he deliberately changes the objective facts of his narrative in order to better portray the emotional and subjective realities of Levi S. Presley’s suicide. On the other side of the spectrum, however, Jim Fingal (John Kroft) is desperate to check the objectivity of every last fact listed in D’Agata’s 15-page essay. In the middle of these two dichotomies lies editor Emily Penrose (Constance Macy), desperate to find her “lifetime piece” that will garner her renowned fame for publishing an incredible article.

John D’Agata (Ben Cherry) and Emily Penrose (Constance Macy) discuss the publication of D’Agata’s essay. (Courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company)

As these characters fight for their own self-interests, the debate between facts and truth takes center stage. Although it may feel at first that this shouldn’t be a debate  at all — facts should be truthful and the truth should utilize objective facts — the arguments soon grows complicated. The emotional complexities and social impact of D’Agata’s stretched truths — and his creative portrayals of events — demonstrate that objective facts, numbers and other statistics cannot always capture the feeling of an event. At one point in the play, D’Agata states, “I’m not interested in accuracy. I’m interested in truth.” For D’Agata, the difference between Presley’s eight-second fall to his death — as reported by the coroner — compared to the nine seconds that he lists in his essay is negligible. To Presley’s family, nine seconds seemed to better capture their horror after learning that their son had died by suicide. For Fingal, however, the impact of a one-second factual discrepancy could harm his reputation as a legitimate, reliable and trustworthy fact-checker.

“Lifespan of a Fact” races through the Friday to Monday morning deadline in which Fingal is assigned to fact check D’Agata’s 15-page essay. Without an intermission, this play is extremely fast-paced and draws the audience in as these three characters rush to check the essay and determine whether it is fit for publication. The play concludes as the three characters work together on the essay, but it ends just before we see Penrose’s decision about running the essay in her magazine. With this ambiguity, we are left to make the call for ourselves — what is fact and what is truth?

(From left to right) Jim Fingal (John Kroft), Emily Penrose (Constance Macy) and John D’Agata (Ben Cherry) ponder D’Agata’s writing. (Courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company)

While the play is based on a true story that addresses very real topics, at times, the narrative of the play feels a bit unrealistic and exaggerated. Most of the play takes place in Las Vegas because Fingal decides to fly out in order to see the world of D’Agata’s essay for himself. Tying into tropes of an overly-committed intern who is desperate to please, an uncooperative writer who is unwilling to change his writing and an editor who is primarily focused on deadlines, this play seems to depend on stereotypes in order to present the debate between fact and truth. The debate is clear and nuanced in the play, yet the lack of nuance in each character left them feeling a bit one-dimensional.

Aside from this small critique, the play was very entertaining and seemed to grab the entire audience’s attention. The play does contain strong language, but each “f-bomb” is well placed and helps to further drive the plot and adds an air of realism to these characters.

“Lifespan of a Fact” will be running at Pioneer Theatre Company until Nov. 16. For University of Utah students, tickets are just $5 with a UCard, and other tickets can be found online. 


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