Truth and fact go at it in invigorating drama at TheaterWorks Hartford

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Magazine editor Emma Penrose sits between a rock and a hard place — fact and truth.

Her office — as designed by Brian Prather for director Tracy Brigden's vigorous, intellectually and emotionally involving, insightfully played production of "The Lifespan of a Fact" at TheaterWorks Hartford — is pristine, spare, tidy even to the handwriting on the off-white walls. With the exception of a small framed photograph on her desk, positioned so only she can see it, everything is exposed. There are no secrets.

As "The Lifespan of a Fact" opens, Penrose (played by Tasha Lawrence as a woman of skill, experience, accomplishment and a keen feel for the balance between journalistic integrity on the one hand and, on the other, the hard, pragmatic truths of the publishing business and its unyielding pressures) is interviewing a twentysomething Harvard-educated editorial staff member, Jim Fingal (played by Nick LaMedica), who has been at the magazine only six months and is eager to advance. He brings with him intelligence, curiosity and a dedicated professional belief that facts matter beyond all else. He is being interviewed for a position fact-checking a major article on teen suicide and the culture of life in Las Vegas that uses as a framing device the death of a 16-year-old youth named Levi Presley, who jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino. It's an article rich in color and detail, the work of John D'Agata (Rufus Collins), an important, "experimental essayist" with one book of essays, "Hall of Fame," already to his credit. Penrose has a lot riding on D'Agata's essay, which will be judged, she says at one point, "by journalistic standards."

"Your essay is important," she tells D'Agata late in the play. "People will care. People will ask questions. ... this [could be] a career ender. For both of us. I have duty to my audience, my publisher, my advertisers."

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It's a message she delivers in no certain terms to the idealistic, untested Fingal earlier on. With only five days before the issue containing D'Agata's essay goes to press, Penrose wants Fingal to do due diligence without getting into the weeds; a practical, good faith effort. "It's wonderful you have standards," she tells him during their interview, "Just as long as you understand the compromises we have to often make between material that pushes the envelope ... "

"... and the stuff that sells magazines," Fingal says, finishing the sentence.

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But the issues run deep for Fingal. And so, he travels to Las Vegas to meet with D'Agata in his semi-unkempt home to thrash out their fundamental differences.

D'Agata (played by Collins with a self-absorption, entitlement and deep commitment to a writing aesthetic he wears as comfortably as his casual wardrobe) does not take Fingal's presence easily. Fingal is young, professionally inexperienced, unrelenting as he challenges D'Agata in ways the senior writer has never before been challenged. D'Agata can't believe that Emily — who later also shows up at D'Agata's home — has hired this pesky flyweight.

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The more Fingal digs, the more inconsistencies and inaccuracies he finds. "How can you even for a moment claim that facts are negotiable," Fingal heatedly asks D'Agata. "And even if they are, you're asking an intern to defend the actual nature of the world as it stands against — against white lies, maybe, but lies."

"I started with the facts, I really did," D'Agata replies in response to Fingal's assertion that D'Agata's piece disgraces Presley's memory. "But the more you know ... I let go. I wrote to Levi's spirit, not his body. I'm not interested in accuracy; I'm interested in truth."

This play is based upon the creatively designed book by Fingal and D'Agata that includes a rough early draft of D'Agata's essay which was submitted to Harper's but rejected because of disagreements over fact checking, and details their heated back and forth over seven years before the widely admired final version, "Above a Mountain," was published in another magazine, Believer. Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell have crafted their stage adaptation with clarity, intelligence, wit and respect for both the rock and the hard place between which the play's argument sits.

Kareken, Murrell and Farrell have given us fully developed, richly dimensional characters and Brigden and her cast have responded accordingly. There are no villains here, except, perhaps the much larger system that fuels the discussion in these unstable times over the nature of fact; the fabric of truth.


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