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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ bristles with bravado in Menasha

Critic At Large

Attic Chamber Theatre

Director Berray Billington, top, and, bottom from left, Jonathan Johns, Alexander Cullen and Christine Geniesse of the Attic Chamber Theatre production of “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (Troupe photos)

MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – Words, words, words, WORDS.

Meanings, meanings, meanings, MEANINGS.

Welcome to “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a verbal firecracker of a play.

The story tells of an essay about a boy’s suicide jump from a 1,149-foot tower in Las Vegas and of the sparring between the author and a fastidious fact-checker – with the editor being a “referee” with emotional baggage of her own.

Some plays take guts to put on for their challenging, mind-slugging material. Bingo! That would be Attic Chamber Theatre in this case, with troupe president Berray Billington forging the way as director – excellently.

In the wake of “The Lifespan of a Fact,” most magazine pieces become suspect.

In Attic Chamber Theatre’s strong production that continues Aug. 19-21, the skilled cast leaps into a maw of heavy-duty quandaries of writing and publishing, creating a kind of reality with three dynamite characters.

The setup is it’s Wednesday, and the essay is due to be printed Monday. Emily Penrose (Christine Geniesse), the editor of a high-tone New York-based magazine, wants intern fact-checker Jim Fingal (Alexander Cullen) to do any clean-up on the essay of the noted John D’Agata by working every day to the deadline.

Emily’s first red flag for Jim Fingal: “John’s been known to take his little liberties.”

Flashing forward, Jim Fingal ends up in the home of John D’Agata in Las Vegas. Jim Fingal has been educated at Harvard University, and he is a stickler, thus: The 15-page essay inspires 130 pages of his meticulous questioning.

John D’Agata is quite quotable, often spoken with a lofty air.

+ “I’m not beholden to every detail.”

+ He has chosen a number of strip clubs cited in his essay that’s not the true number, explaining that “I liked the rhythm.”

+ “Wrong facts get in the way of the story.”

+ He aims to write with “a certain style, the rhythm of my experience.”

+ “I am not interested in accuracy, I am interested in truth.”

John D’Agata says he is not a journalist but an essayist.

“The Lifespan of a Fact” is part drama and part comedy that cuts so deeply that satire is mere milquetoast in comparison. The humor is that of intellect scrubbed hard.

Jim Fingal and John D’Agata go at each other hammer and tongs. Emily Penrose is an exasperated participant and a kind of propagator.

The performers are feisty. The material is elaborate and demanding, and Alexander Cullen, Christine Geniesse and Jonathan Johns are wholly committed to their complex characters.

A fourth character is the look – the set, the projections of places, the props, the clothing and the styles of Emily’s office, Jim’s workspace and John’s home. Attic Chamber Theatre has a knack for building this character. 

In the John D’Agata, the playwrights create a caricature of an arrogant writer on one level and, at a telling moment, play up his humanity and his artistic heart-tugging gift for scene-making. The playwrights manipulate as much as the essayist. This is theater, not a documentary, after all.

I close with a style of sarcasm John D’Agata uses. He looks down his nose as he scoffs about drinking Maxwell House Coffee “because it’s cheap.” I like Maxwell House, and I drink it for the caffeine. That’s a fact.


Creative: Based on book by same name co-written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; playwrights – Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, Gordon Farrell; director – Berray Billington; production coordinators – Kyle Conn, Robert Ernst; scenic and lighting designer – John Dalziel; light hang assistant – Zanna King; costume coordinator – Emily Mae Westerfield; props master – Kyle Conn; props mistress – Stacy Hoffman


Emily Penrose – Christine Geniesse

Jim Fingal – Alexander Cullen

John D’Agata – Jonathan Johns

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19-21


Note 1: Profanities are used.

Note 2: For COVID-19 reasons, masks are required for the audience, and the actors wear clear shields over their face.


NEXT: “The Outsider” by Paul Slade Smith, Nov. 4-7, 11-13.

THE VENUE: Lucia Baehman Theatre is a 125-seat, rectangular space in the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus (name change as of July 12, 2019) Communication Arts Center. Lined by black stage curtains on each wall, the space serves as a black-box theater. There are no adornments, and the stage and space are adaptable to whatever a production needs. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays. The center opened in 2009.

THE PEOPLE: Lucia Baehman and her husband, Stan, are longtime supporters of theater in the Fox River Valley.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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