‘The Lifespan of a Fact’: Making journalistic sausage

Mickey Solis, Lindsay Crouse and Derek Speedy in “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Photo: Jason Grow

GLOUCESTER – In a universe where there is even such a term as “alternative facts,” the mere title “The Lifespan of a Fact” conjures up battles between opposing forces firing at each other, each one using as a shield the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

But in this instance – the Gloucester Stage Company’s regional premiere of the play – the battle is joined over the importance of facts when it comes to a story that aspires to – or appears to aspire to – journalistic standards.

 “The Lifespan of a Fact” had a packed 16-week run at Studio 54 in New York last winter with the estimable Cherry Jones, Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale.

The GSC cast features Lindsay Crouse, a summer resident of Gloucester, who has authored a series of memorable performances at the seaside theater; Mickey Solis, who does most of his work in NYC; and recent Harvard grad Derek Speedy, directed by Sam Weisman, in the tale of a  writer and a young fact-checker assigned to vet an important piece of work for a magazine editor feeling the heat to deliver the piece on time

The play, written by Jeremy KarekenDavid Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is based on the 2012 essay/book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the writer and fact-checker played by Solis and Speedy in the play.

Magazine editor Emily Penrose (Crouse) would love to have what appears to be new piece written by D’Aagata in her next edition, but deadline looms in just five days and the complicated piece calls for some serious fact-checking in a job that could take all of the upcoming weekend.

Into her office walks Fingal, who bubbles with enthusiasm and a can-do attitude, but is also young and inexperienced save for his Harvard Crimson background. He accepts the task and right away gets off on the wrong foot in referencing D’Agata’s work as an “article” instead of the author’s preferred “essay.”

At first, D’Agata comes across as smug and arrogant in his declarations and his passionate protection of his work with statements such as “I’m not a journalist. I’m an essayist.” Or later, while wrestling over whether a certain number is accurate: “I’m not interested in accuracy. I’m interested in truth.”

But he has made certain promises to the family of the boy who has committed suicide, the centerpiece of his essay, and he is determined to keep them.

The problems, for Fingal, come when D’Agata is referencing human lives and actual events that can easily be checked, and the legal problems that can ensure if you have decided to fudge the facts to better tell the story.

The young Fingal eagerly tears into the task but after several days into the process, he is still trying to vet the first few lines of the story. The stakes are amped up again when he shows up unexpectedly at D’Agata’s home in Las Vegas to go toe-to-toe with the writer.

As the clock starts ticking down to zero and Penrose is faced with the possibility of having to plug in a puff piece about Congressional wives, the stakes are raised when she is forced to go out to Las Vegas  to referee the increasingly intense sparring between D’Agata and Fingal that threatens to derail the piece.

As D’Agata and Fingal takes turns stating their cases with dialogue that is snappy, smart, fast, funny, and engaging, the process of melding the creative process with the facts reveals itself.

Will Penrose’s devotion to the facts waver when faced with reality, and deadline rears its ugly head?

Director Weisman ratchets up the pacing and it becomes breathless as an overhead screen clicks off the days remaining to deadline one by one.  

 As someone who has been through the fact-checking process a few times for magazines and many thousands of times in 43 years as a journalist, it was fun to see both the heat and the light involved in the making of an important magazine piece, which, in the end, is very akin to making sausage.  

The Gloucester Stage Company production of “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Written by Jeremy KarekenDavid Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, Based on the essay/book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Scenic Design, J. Michael Griggs; Lighting Design, Marcy Barbeau; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Props Design, Lauren Corcuera; Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager, Olivia Paluzzi. Through  Sept. 22 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main Street, Gloucester. gloucesterstage.com.