Stage review: Getting to the ‘Truth’ behind the ‘truth’


For the Valley News

Published: 03-10-2023 11:22 PM

Renowned essayist John D’Agata’s new piece is set to move the world. Its 15 pages portray the life and death of a Las Vegas boy who died by suicide. All it needs is a glance at the names and dates.

Pushing against the weight of the world, fact-checking intern Jim Fingal dissects every minute claim until he begins to philosophize (capital ‘T’) Truth itself.

This is the central conflict of “The Lifespan of a Fact,” now in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through March 19. Directed by Bill Coons, this agile comedy pits the two main characters’ perspectives against each other, while their shared understanding allows for a nuanced examination of what truth is and how it functions.

Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, “The Lifespan of a Fact” premiered in 2018 on Broadway. Based on a book about the actual essay’s fact-checking process, the play contrasts objective accuracy against a more passionate, literary concept of truth. In effect, it pushes viewers to question how we draw the boundaries of Truth and how clear they really are.

The intern Fingal, a Harvard graduate in computer science and journalism played by Shaker Bridge newcomer Jovan Davis, is assigned the fact-check as his big break. But instead of letting it float along, he seizes every possible claim with the zeal of an ant colony that found the raspberry popsicle you dropped.

His computer science major showing, Fingal spills out a 130-page spreadsheet that details every factual discrepancy. The bricks were brown, not red, and the fall took 8 seconds, not 9, etc. For D’Agata (Grant Neale), these are all stylistic choices made to convey something more emotional about the truncated life of the boy he’s writing about.

Fingal chases every fact in the essay all the way to D’Agata’s couch in Las Vegas — from New York. The ingenious set design here carefully conveys differences in location. Four densely packed areas split the play’s various settings, which are made clear by tasteful lighting.

D’Agata towers over Fingal with moral superiority; he believes that the minor facts should be shifted around, the better to convey a more abstract “central truth,” a concept that follows a long lineage of essayists — from Cicero to Eliot — as a way to lend spiritual structure to life’s chaos.

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As Fingal pecks away at the author in his Las Vegas home, D’Agata continues to peer down at him with conceit. As the rugged author, Neale — a Shaker Bridge veteran — draws laughs through his variations of an “are you kidding me?” face.

Their argument continuing, he offers Fingal coffee and reveals slight respect. Fingal admires the author from the beginning but hews to his values. Their multiple dimensions add reality to the characters.

Nonetheless, D’Agata stands tall with his lofty idea that the particulars of an essay must serve its central expression.

After a while, Fingal gives a vigorous, swaying monologue disputing what constitutes a traffic “jam” — complete with a thorough diagram. His speech drew roaring laughter and applause from the crowd; this nearly jammed the play itself, which seemed an oddly reasonable reaction.

Davis portrays the anxious fact-checker with a hypnotizing charisma, able to seem fragile while simultaneously filling the entire room.

In the wake of the laughter, Fingal counterpoints D’Agata’s lofty central truth: Conspiracies, fake news and a general lack of media literacy could all corrupt the essay. All the pieces need to fit perfectly together, or else the entire piece could be torn apart by political echo chambers. For this reason, he takes Truth as factual accuracy.

Also, a misstep could emotionally damage those affected by the teen’s death; would an inaccurately described suicide not cause undue grief to the families?

In response, D’Agata gives a powerful analogy in favor of serving the more emotional truth of a piece. After all, he’s aiming to represent the life and death of a teenage boy, not write a lab report.

Additionally, he finds that the further that one scrutinizes Truth, the blurrier its boundaries become. He gives the analogy of a coastline: The closer one measures, the more nooks and crannies are found, so the length can only be approximated.

But Emily Penrose (Kay Morton) must decide whether to publish the essay. Despite her experience with Shaker Bridge Theatre, Morton seemed to struggle, lacking gusto, missing lines and exhibiting poor timing. But the other two characters’ momentum did well enough to hold her up.

For the majority of the play, the dark content of the essay is passed around superficially like an unopened can of worms. However, the final part of the comedy takes on a sternness; the can of the essay’s subject is solemnly opened and lingered upon.

All in all, Davis’ performance alone warrants a viewing; and in tandem with Neale, the audience will be brushed along in rich laughter, thought and emotion.

“The Lifespan of a Fact” is in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre, in Enfield’s Whitney Hall, through March 19. For tickets, go to, email or call 603-448-3750.

Lukas Dunford is a freelance writer. He lives in Hanover.