Truth Or Consequences? APT drama argues facts versus substance

Truth Or Consequences? APT drama argues facts versus substance

It was a dark and stormy night, and the rolling thunder and flashes of lightning added weight to the intense portrayal of life and death at the Arkansas Public Theatre’s rehearsal of “The Lifespan of a Fact.”

Magazine editor Emily Primrose (played by Andria Lickfelt) assigns Jim Fingal (Tanner Pittman) to fact check an essay she thinks will be a huge success in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

Only some of that sentence is factual, however. Rehearsal actually happened on a pleasant and breezy spring Monday with just a few clouds in the sky. And the play is certainly thought-provoking and dramatic, but perhaps not a matter of life or death.

Does it matter that in order to set the mood, the writer — in this case me — embellished a little? In the case of John D’Agata’s essay on the suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, does it matter whether the bricks of the building he jumped from were brown or red? Does it matter if he fell for eight seconds or nine? Or how many other people died that day?

Or does it matter more that the author sat with the victim’s family, walked the route he would have taken to his death and wants desperately to make Levi Presley’s life mean something?

Emily Primrose, the editor, flies to Las Vegas to try to make peace with writer John D’Agata in “The Lifespan of a Fact.” Andria Lickfelt plays Primrose, and Michael Weir is D’Argata in the APT production opening March 26. (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

That’s the premise of “The Lifespan of a Fact,” based on the true story of D’Agata’s essay “What Happens There”; a compulsive fact checker named Jim Fingal; and an editor, Emily Penrose, who has to choose whether to let small but niggling misstatements of fact get in the way of a story that might save her precariously balanced magazine — and maybe even change the world.

The first thing D’Agata, who is the M.F. Carpenter Professor of English and director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, wants you to know is this: “The ‘John’ and ‘Jim’ in both the play and the book are characters. They are merely versions of the real guys — who are actually friends!”

The second thing he wants to say is that in real life, facts matter. In storytelling, maybe not so much.

“Emily … will ultimately be the one to decide if the essay gets published or not. Is he/she right or wrong,” muses actress Andria Lickfelt. “I think that’s one of the interesting things about this show — everyone thinks they’re ‘right.’ Or maybe another way to look at it is that all three want the same thing — or a version of the same thing.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

“Back in the early 2000s, Jim and I were just trying to write about a nerdy literary issue that’s been discussed within the nonfiction world for years,” D’Agata says in email. “I’ve always personally believed that some forms of nonfiction — like personal essays and intimate cultural explorations — have the same license to take liberties with some facts in a story in order to better serve a narrative truth. And I still believe this.

“That idea is controversial enough within the literary world, but once the play came out on Broadway three years ago, the national conversation about facts had become unavoidably political,” he goes on. “Our former president had introduced his epithet of ‘fake news,’ and his spokespeople started referring to ‘alternative facts.’ And suddenly the poor character of ‘John’ in the play was aligned with (in my opinion) a dangerous belief system that has caused a lot of lasting damage in our country.

“When it comes to art and literature, I still believe that writers can take liberties with facts if doing so can serve the higher truth of a story. But in our lives, in our society, in our government, and in our daily human interactions with each other, we can only rely on facts. Doing anything less will put all of us in jeopardy, and it will risk destroying everything that I desperately hope Americans still collectively care about.”

In “The Lifespan of a Fact,” John D’Agata bought this chair for his mom. He needed it to fit in a certain space with room for a walker. The catalogue measurements say the chair is too large for the space, but John says his mom died in that chair. His mom’s last words were in the chair before she blacked out. She was revived in the ambulance and put on life support, dying later. So the argument is “When and where did she die?” If you only studied verifiable facts, the chair is too large so it wouldn’t fit and her physical time of death was at the hospital, so John’s version of his mother’s death couldn’t possibly be true, explains actor Michael Weir (right). Also pictured are Andria Lickfelt and Tanner Pittman. (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

Under the direction of Brenda Mashburn Nemec, veteran actor Michael Weir portrays D’Agata in the APT production.

“He sees himself as a storyteller trying to get at deeper truths about who this particular teenager was and using his story to illustrate why anyone would decide to take their own life,” Weir says of his character. “John is trying to tell a deeper story, some probably coming from his own experience, and most of the rigid details probably are unimportant for that. However, there is also the issue of how changing those details might affect the credibility of the story to the individual reader. That’s the beauty of this play. Each audience member will have a different view on who is right and who is wrong, and that view may change as the play goes along.”

The moral of the story to Weir? “Approach everything you read, watch or listen to with an open mind.”

Tanner Pittman plays Jim Fingal, a Harvard-educated up-and-comer who takes the assignment to fact check D’Agata so seriously he flies to Las Vegas to do the job.

“After a year fueled with misinformation and conflicting facts, I think this piece will resonate,” Pittman says. “It speaks to the desire to find the truth in a world full of misrepresented information.”

In the middle stands Emily Primrose, the magazine editor who just wanted Fingal to make a good-faith effort that would satisfy the lawyers.

“Emily … will ultimately be the one to decide if the essay gets published or not. Is he/she right or wrong,” muses actress Andria Lickfelt. “I think that’s one of the interesting things about this show — everyone thinks they’re ‘right.’ Or maybe another way to look at it is that all three want the same thing — or a version of the same thing. John wants the piece to be emotionally true, Jim wants it to be accurate, and I just want to be able to print it because I believe it’s a moving and rare piece of writing.

John D’Agata

“I don’t know that there’s necessarily a moral that comes from the show,” Lickfelt continues. “It definitely gets you thinking about the line between fact and fiction. While the real events that inspired this play happened awhile back, I think if you didn’t know that, you might think it had been written about right now. It’s very timely. Maybe there will always be a slippery slope of fact versus fiction in what we read and watch.”

“There are times when the story is suspended between fact and truth, and those two words are not always interchangeable,” says Nemec.



‘The Lifespan of a Fact’

WHEN — 8 p.m. March 26-27; 2 p.m. March 28; 8 p.m. April 1-3

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — Tickets start at $10

INFO — 631-8988 or

Categories: Theater