Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Waitress
The gestation of this story is a complex one. John D'Agata wrote an essay on the suicide culture in his native Las Vegas, which is higher than national averages. It was scheduled to be published in Harper's, but was rejected at a late moment due to factual inaccuracies. It was picked up by another magazine (The Believer) and rigorously fact checked by recent Harvard graduate Jim Fingal, a process taking several years. That process was turned into a book (published 2012) with the same title as this play. In the book the email back and forths regarding basic facts were laid out on the same pages as the original text. With Gordon Farrell, this material was turned into the play in front of us now, at Asolo Repertory Theatre. Premiering on Broadway in October 2018, with the starry cast of Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale, the play was a popular strictly limited run.
I haven't read the book, but am guessing the themes covered in the play are more suitable for a book's individualized pacing, allowing complexities to be better sorted out. In a tumultuous 80 minutes, details go whizzing by this audience member's brain. The basic theme of fact vs. poetic license can be easily assimilated, but when at the half way point, John begins his defense, that he is trying to take readers on a journey toward emotional understanding of the culture of suicide and its resultant loss for the survivors, things get muddy. John is personally stuck in metaphysical emotions around losing his mother and this becomes an almost equally important theme in the play.
The acting in this production is excellent. Derek Speedy has a couple of built-in pluses as he takes on the role of fact-checker Jim: He is a recent Harvard graduate, as is the character, and this is his second go round with the play, having previously played the role at Gloucester Stage in Massachusetts. He captures the fine line between nerd and being right about most of what he espouses. Tracy Michelle Arnold, the only cast member with Asolo history, is fine as editor Emily. She gets more assertive as the tension mounts between Jim and John, and her slow burn, wanting to flame, is vividly real. As John, Gene Weygandt comes into his own as the character's deep emotions take over and we come to understand how personal the story behind the essay is to him.
This production may be one of the only instances where the abundance of resources available to Asolo Rep might be a disservice to the play. The scenic design by Brian Prather in particular is so lavish that it somewhat drowns the ideas in the play. There is so much detail that Celine Rosenthal's direction seems more concerned with blocking than fine-tuning the sharpness of exchanges between Jim and John, just a bit. Costume designs by Jen Caprio are excellent, as is the lighting design of Andrew F. Griffin.
I'm glad to see The Lifespan of a Fact a play full of conflicting views on an important subject. A talkback in which a moderator could steer the participants toward consideration of these ideas in the context of modern news delivery and the political arena might prove fascinating. Still, seeing such a well-acted production is a fine gift from Asolo Rep.
The Lifespan of a Fact runs through March 19, 2020, at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Mertz Theatre, FSU Center, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. For information and tickets, call the box office at 941-351-8000 or visit www.asolorep.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):