Timeline’s Lifespan of a Fact comically seeks the difference between fact and truth

Photo by Liz Lauren

Fact: On Saturday, July 13, 2002, Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley climbed two fences atop the Stratosphere Tower at about 6 PM and jumped to his death 109 stories below.

Fact: Essayist John D’Agata was commissioned by Harper’s to write about the event later that year.

Fact: The essay, rejected by Harper’s due to D’Agata’s blending of fiction and fact, was finally published in The Believer in 2010 after a several years-long fact-checking mission by Jim Fingal, who was an intern when it all started.

Fact: D’Agata and Fingal jointly published The Lifespan of a Fact, basing it on years of emails shared between the two in which they intricately argued whether “fact” is different from “truth.” The New York Times review states, “(D’Agata) takes randomness and superimposes themes, gins up drama where it doesn’t exist, tries to convince us his embellishments are more vivid and revealing about a city, about human nature, about Truth, than reality could ever be.”

Fact: In 2018, a play derived from that book, co-written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell premiered on Broadway.

Fact: That play is now playing at Timeline Theatre in Chicago.

Truth: I absolutely freaking loved it.

On a lovely but seemingly simple set by Jeffrey D. Kmiec—it later opens into something much more complex, a visual metaphor for the difference between appearance and reality, between “truth” and “fact”—director Mechelle Moe’s three-member cast (PJ Powers as D’Agata, Alex Benito Rodriguez at Fingal, and Juliet Hart as Emily Penrose, the editor of the fictional version of the magazine that ultimately published the essay) creates an often very funny exploration into the difference between these concepts. Fingal, assigned to fact-check and determined to do a great job, runs straight into an immovable object in D’Agata, who has played fast and loose with “facts” in his determined focus on finding the “truth” of this boy, this act, and this city, and is basically unwilling to concede anything at all.

Typical argument: D’Agata had written that the city had 31 strip clubs at the time of the suicide, but Fingal finds out that it actually had 34. Assuming that this will be an easy fix, he mentions it to the writer…who refuses to change it, saying that he “likes the rhythm” of 34 as opposed to 31.

There are many, many such changes, not all of them picayune details. D’Agata actually changed major parts of the story as well. A girl who jumped from a different tower that same day had her suicide changed to hanging because the writer “only wanted one” suicide by leaping from a building. A traffic jam that he reported caused a backup that allowed dozens of drivers to witness the horrifying ending of Presley’s fall simply, Fingal discovered, never happened. Other events were conflated so they occurred on the same day as the jump, merely for effect.

Moe gets incredible performances from her cast playing characters who get so lost in their arguments that at one point D’Agata actually starts to strangle Fingal. Both of the men are fully convinced of the truth of their own points of view, passionately arguing their points, and Hart, at first rather exasperated by her intern fact-checker, comes to recognize that there really is a lot she and her magazine could get in trouble for. The playwrights don’t really take sides, and we never actually learn what Penrose’s ultimate decision is, but that isn’t the point.

Kmiec’s set is also a metaphor for truth and fact in another way: at the magazine it is streamlined and clear, as facts should be. But in D’Agata’s Las Vegas home, nothing is orderly. It is his truth, and it’s all that matters to him.

Kmiec also allowed spaces on the set for projections of images from the city designed by Anthony Churchill and Vija Lapp, providing the kinetic experience of the chaos of Sin City. Brandon Wardell’s lighting and Andrew Hansen’s sound serve as further reminders that what we are watching is neither fact nor truth: it is a theatrical representation of a book about something that happened. And maybe that’s the best thing it could possibly be.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a Timeline Theatre production now playing at 165 Wellington, Chicago Chicago through December 23.  Performance times vary; check the website at Timeline Theatre.  Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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