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Performing Arts

Merely Players’ provocative storytelling

Conor Sheehan plays Jim, left, and Stephen Bowers is John in Merely Players’ production of “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (Courtesy of Kara Cavalca)
Comic-drama ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ unspools timely, current conflicts

In its long and highly creative lifespan, Merely Players has operated on two tracks: imaginatively tweaking established plays into new shapes and forms and bringing new works about contemporary issues to life.

Witness this year’s opening production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” set in the groovy, tie-dye 1960s. Or more recently, a hilarious, stylized version of an old Agatha Christie chestnut, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Opening today (March 10), and running through March 19, “The Lifespan of a Fact” is a contemporary play about current issues illuminated through a classic, generational conflict. Based on actual events, “Lifespan” centers on well-matched combatants – a smart, eager college graduate entering the world of publishing, and a smug, established author with an academic career shoring up his reputation. “Lifespan,” like “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” earlier this season, continues Director Mona Wood-Patterson’s search for new plays that speak to our time in provocative ways.

Melanie McLean plays Emily in “Lifespan of a Fact.” (Courtesy of Kara Cavalca)

“Lifespan” premiered on Broadway in 2018, with a quicksilver cast: Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame as a Jim Fingal, the hot-shot millennial eager to make his mark as an intern; Bobby Cannavale as Professor John D’Agata, an academic and published writer; and Cherry Jones as Editor Emily Penrose, a frantic magazine editor on a tight deadline to publish a timely essay on teen suicide.

Based on real events and real personalities, the conflict between a doggedly persistent 20-something and his middle-aged combatant unspools with comic tension. Yes, comic tension.

The play begins with a last-minute, 15-page story substitution. It needs a final fact-check. Editor Penrose interviews intern Jim Fingal, who has worked only six months since his graduation. Fingal is eager to get the assignment and meet the deadline. The magazine, The Believer, must go to press Monday morning. The author is difficult, cavalier with facts.

That’s the set-up – a high-pressure conflict ripe for comedy.

The script begins with the first sentence of D’Agata’s essay, then quickly morphs to the editor’s dilemma of a last-minute change and the impending deadline. Penrose interviews Fingal, who in turn meets D’Agata, and a fraught struggle begins among the three characters. Each side of the triangle has an agenda as “Lifespan” unspools. The combatants fight for their principles and objectives as the clock points relentlessly toward Monday’s deadline.

If you go

WHAT: “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, based on a true story.

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 10-11, 17-18, and 2 p.m. March 12 and 19.

WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.


MORE INFORMATION: Visit merelyplayers.org or call 749-8585.

Three Merely stalwarts fill the three roles: Melanie McLean plays Editor Penrose, Conor Sheehan is intern Jim Fingal, and Stephen Bowers portrays John D’Agata. Running time is about 90 minutes, and “Lifespan” is played without intermission. Don’t miss it.

The lifespan of a disagreement

John D’Agata’s 2003 essay, “What Happens There,” has its own lifespan and colorful history. It began with a commission by Harper’s Magazine for an essay about a 2002 suicide in Las Vegas. Harper’s disputed D’Agata’s approach and subsequently canceled the commission because of factual inaccuracies. The author shifted to another magazine, The Believer, and after the contentious fact checking process, an edited version finally appeared in 2010, seven years after the tussles with Jim Fingal began. Surprisingly, D’Agata and Fingal collaborated on a book version of the dispute. It was published in 2012 by W. W. Norton. In 2018, the play version opened on Broadway. And now, Merely Players presents the regional premiere of “The Lifespan of a Fact” in 2023.

Conor Sheehan plays Jim, front, and Stephen Bowers is John in Merely Players’ production of “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (Courtesy of Kara Cavalca)

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.