Fact, Fiction or Something in Between? ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ Asks But Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers

(Lindsay Crouse in Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact – Photos by Jason Grow)

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through September 22, is such a work, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production.

The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum piece about Congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however, it must undergo fact checking and there is only the weekend to do it.

Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact checking for a 13-page essay.

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).

D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.

Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.

(Solis, Crouse)

By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised is the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.

Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable? Where do ethics come in? And editorial judgment? Is credible the same as true? Is there an acceptable margin of error in journalism? If so, what is it?

(Crouse, Speedy)

Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational.  Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.

At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.

‘The Lifespan of a Fact –Written by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Composer/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, Scenic Design by J. Michael Griggs. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through September 22.For tickets and information, visit: https://gloucesterstage.com/

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Ben Butler’ Is Much More Than A Historical Comedy

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson. All Photos by Jason Grow.

By Shelley A. Sackett

On May 23, 1861, smack in the middle of the Civil War, the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United States. The next day, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union-held Fort Monroe, VA, finds himself in an unusual moral and legal pickle. Three escaped slaves have showed up at the fort’s doorstep seeking sanctuary. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, settled federal law since its 1850 enactment, General Butler is required to return them to their owner.

Yet Butler wears more than just his military hat. A silver-tongued lawyer with a reputation as a champion of labor, abolition and naturalized citizens, he is reticent to follow the letter of the law and send the slaves back to the Confederacy. Are they not, after all, people seeking asylum from an oppressive regime? For Butler, this goes way beyond issues of legal or military might; it is a matter that goes straight to the core of who he is (or, is not) as a moral human being. At the same time, he is understandably reticent to rock the boat and sink his own career. Even scarier yet is the idea of leaving his fingerprints all over an incident that could affect the outcome of the war.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

The complicated matter becomes even more so when Butler actually meets Shepard Mallory, the slave who has demanded an audience to plead his case in person. Despite the stark black and white differences in their skin, station and status, the two soon realize they have more in common than not.

Both are expert verbal sparrers, and recognize in the other a familiar spunk and intellect. Both are, at their core, compassionate and humanistic. And bought are caught in the razor-sharp teeth of the cog that fuels the madness that has torn the United States in two.

If this sounds like the stuff of a heart-wrenching, angst-laden script, think again, for playwright Richard Strand has turned the tragic on its head. His lively comedy drives home all the important messages – that slavery is evil, that all humans are created as equals, and that war is bad, for starters – but clothes them in clever repartees and endless rounds of (mostly) delightful verbal gymnastics.

For it turns out that Shepard Mallory is no ordinary man. The runaway slave is literate, literary and able to run legal circles around General Butler who, in truth, is much more of a lawyer than military man. As they joust and brawl, they are shocked and then delighted to discover that they have each finally met their match.

 

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L to R: Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor

 

And this is where Strand’s script – flawed and bloated though it is – is both brilliant and brave. As Butler and Mallory get to know each other, the world’s artifice that separates them melts away. They become kindred spirits, united in their revulsion at the perversity that is at the rotten core of slavery. Strand shows the audience what “all men are created equal” really looks like. This is infinitely more effective and more powerful than a chest-beating diatribe against racism could ever be.

A fast-paced comedy about slavery is dependent on the caliber of its actors, and the Gloucester Stage production rises to the occasion. As Butler, Ames Adamson (who originated the role at the New Jersey Repertory Company and again Off-Broadway at 59E59TH Theatre) is clearly having the time of his life, practically chewing the scenery. He is the eye of the storm and both the audience and his cast mates know it. Shane Taylor holds his own as Mallory, delicately walking a fine line between enlightened erudition and bondage. And Doug Bowen-Flynn, as the by-the-book West Point graduate Lieutenant Kelly, is a perfect foil for Butler’s more nuanced version of life. His transformation from knee-jerk bigot to color blind humanist is masterfully graceful and poignant.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

Some might chafe at the idea of a subject as serious as slavery being handled with a light comedic touch, and in another playwright’s hands, they might be right. In the case of ‘Ben Butler,’ however, Richard Strand has brought home the very serious point that racism is evil and immoral, and let us have a jolly good time nonetheless.

‘Ben Butler’ –Written by Richard Strand; Directed by Joseph Discher; Scenic Design by Greg Trochlil; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Sound Design by Joseph Discher. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through August 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://gloucesterstage.com/

RESCUES Manual for Commercial Fishing Industry Unveiled

 

Compilation of best practices for fishermen, families and communities

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

 

 

Over fifty people packed the standing room only Gloucester Coast Guard Station last Thursday for the unveiling of RESCUES, the long awaited first-ever comprehensive guidebook on dealing with a crisis in a fishing community.

 

“This is an exciting day, but it is also a sad day,” said Angela Sanfilippo, the President of both the Gloucester’s Wives Association and the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, who also served as master of ceremonies. As a fisherman’s daughter, wife and mother, she has first hand experience of the pain and trauma suffered by families and communities when a fisherman is lost at sea.

 

She told the story of the night of the 1992 “perfect storm” when she and many others slept at the Gloucester Coast Guard Station. “The captain said, ‘We need to start training fishermen in how to save themselves,’” she recalled. That planted the seed that would eventually grow into the RESCUES manual.

Mayor and Sanfilippo

Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken addresses the group as Angela Sanfilippo looks on.

 

The acronym stands for Responding to Emergencies at Sea and to Communities Under Extreme Stress.

 

“We all get numb to the dangers of the fishing industry, but there are widow’s walks and porches named for families who paced, hoping their men would come home,” said J.J. Bartlett, President of Fishing Partnership Support Services. He said that if public school teachers died at the same rate as fishermen on the job, over 400 teachers would die of work-related injuries each year.

 

“The idea is that, when a crisis occurs, folks in our fishing ports will be able to consult this manual and know right away how the Coast Guard and other authorities are responding, and where to turn for reliable help and support,” Barlett added.

 

Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken spoke of her own family tragedies over fishing accidents and their aftermath. “You can take the fisherman out of the ocean but you can’t take the ocean out of the fisherman,” she said. “We’re fortunate in Gloucester because we have a team in place to put this kind of book together so now you know where to go” for help, she added, noting that although there is no safety book that will prevent loss of life at sea, “this book can help.”

 

The Mayor praised the Coast Guard. “They risk their lives for the sake of the fishermen,” she said. Captain Robert Lepere, commanding officer of the Gloucester Coast Guard Station for the past three years, returned the compliment. “I’ve been in the Coast Guard for 20 years, and never have I seen a community pull together like this,” he said. Captain Claudia C. Geltzer, commanding officer of the Boston Coast Guard Station and Captain of the Port of Boston, praised RESCUES as a very important milestone. “This manual will make any fisherman who reads it better prepared at sea,” she said. “In the heat of a crisis, we all revert back to our training.”

Hall-Arber and Sanfilippo

Madeline Hall-Arber

 

Madeline Hall-Arber, an anthropologist at the Sea Grant College program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ann Backus, of the Harvard University School of Public Health, were the principal investigators on the lengthy project that produced RESCUES. They interviewed fishing community leaders, Coast Guard personnel, fishing vessel safety trainers, clergy, social service agencies, fishermen and their families, business owners, insurance companies and attorneys. Kristina Pinto of the Fishing Partnership Support Services is the third co-author.

 

Hall-Arber described how she first became interested in undertaking the RESCUES project. “I met a fisherman who didn’t know how to swim. ‘Why prolong the agony?’” he asked. She remembered thinking it might be an interesting research project to find out what fishing industry standard best practices were before an accident, at sea and if disaster occurred. “People in the industry were astoundingly enthusiastic,” she said.

 

The RESCUES manual focuses on what interviewees shared as being critical to know before, during and after an incident. It contains a wealth of material, including contacts for services in Gloucester and New Bedford.

 

Its five main sections focus on essential information to help prepare individuals, groups and entire communities for a crisis affecting members of the commercial fishing industry, such as the sinking of a boat or the search for crew members lost overboard at sea.

I wanted people to be able to skim the manual, get useful information, and then go back,” Hall-Arber said.

 

For example, chapter 1, “Integrative Preparedness” (before leaving the dock) includes an easy-to-follow checklist of essential safety training and communication plans for the vessel owner, crew and families. “Emergency” explains what the Coast Guard does during an emergency and outlines communication chains of command. “The Aftermath” and “Longer-Term Outreach and Counseling” addresses situations after a loss is confirmed. Appendices incorporate maintenance checklists, Coast Guard contact information, community crisis support organizations and useful websites.

 

One of the surprising facts Hall-Arber learned was that many family members didn’t know which boat their loved one was on or what kind of fishing he might be doing that day. Backus, whose expertise is in occupational safety and health in the fishing industry, likewise discovered that vessel captains usually didn’t know about crewmembers’ medical histories or their contact information. She and Sanfilippo have since developed and distributed scores of refrigerator magnets for fishermen’s families to keep handy with information that the Coast Guard would need in an emergency. “Families should know where important documents are,” Backus said.

 

Paul Vitale, 43, a fisherman who has lived in Gloucester his whole life, thinks some of these common sense suggestions will be extremely helpful. “Lots of time people don’t know which boat they’ll be on. Not everyone owns their own boat,” he explained.

 

Fishermens wives Statue

 

Sanfilippo, who was instrumental in bringing to fruition the decades-long dream of Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association to create a Fishermen’s Wives Memorial, is equally determined to bring RESCUES beyond Boston, the South Shore and Cape Cod. “We will be bringing this up and down the entire coastline. Today we open that road,” she said to resounding applause.