ALT: Voices on the right take their ‘Turn’

By John Lyle Belden

What if you were in an echo chamber, and the voice coming back questioned you? Or said something else entirely?

Welcome to the edge of a small town in the west-central part of Wyoming, home of cowboys and a Catholic college. It’s Trump country – especially in August 2017, with conservatives still grateful they narrowly avoided a Hillary Clinton presidency and perhaps realizing that buffoonery was about all they would get from the President they elected.

In the Pulitzer-nominated drama “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” by Will Arbery, presented by American Lives Theatre, you will find no “liberals,” yet these four young men and women gathering seven years after graduation from the college, celebrating their mentor becoming its president, aren’t entirely of the same mind.

The atmosphere is ominous: Could it be that the infamous Charlottesville riot was just days ago? Or that this land where the Plains meets the Rockies will soon be in the totality of a solar eclipse? Or is it something about the deer that Justin (Tyler Lyons) shot, or that unnatural noise in his shed? His guests – Teresa (Morgan Morton), who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and admires then-White House advisor Steve Bannon; Kevin (Taylor Cox), an apparent alcoholic working for a Catholic publisher in Oklahoma; and Emily (Devan Mathias), who lives with chronic pain and in the shadow of her mother, Dr. Gina Presson (Gigi Jennewein), whom they have gathered to honor – start to have what Kevin likes to call “big conversations.”

Teresa is fascinated by the controversial 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning,” by social scientists William Strauss and Neil Howe, and treats it like prophesy, asserting the “Turning,” a time of upheaval, is upon them. She calls it an imminent “war,” and Justin, a Marine veteran, agrees, seeing the conflict not as spiritual, cultural or rhetorical, but armed revolution. Emily, who battles mental and physical torment with an exceptionally upbeat outlook – “pain and grace,” she calls it – doesn’t want to hear any of it. Kevin, feeling uncertain about everything, wants to delve further. To change the topic, Justin tells of a children’s-book story he is working on, “The Grateful Acre,” about the stoic optimism of a plot of land.

Eventually Gina arrives, and when prodded for her thoughts, adds her perspective to the party.

In the words of Arbery, with the guidance of director Andrew Kramer, we get excellent insight on what people on the political right are thinking and why. Any notes from the other side of the spectrum come from experiences with others, as bits of devil’s advocacy, or in warnings from Teresa that “this is what they say about us.” The militant and reactionary perspectives dash against the rocks of Gina’s intellectual conservatism (think Bannon vs. George Will), but even her logic frays at the edges.

Morton and Lyons are solid as characters who stick to their guns (one figuratively, the other literally). Jennewein’s stalwart academic reminds me now much I miss the relatively measured stance of the late Bill Buckley Jr.

Mathias nimbly gives us a necessarily complex character, too often finding herself in the middle of things with no real control. Emily also has a life experience that impacts her conservative Catholic beliefs, a thing that won’t reconcile easily.

“It’s hard to be the ‘Holy Fool,’” Kevin says, but Cox gives us a master class in embodying the archetype. Like the Fool who stood by King Lear in a storm, his Kevin is all over the place both in dialogue and movement, ever probing for the veritas his vino won’t provide. Ridicule, insult or pity him – as others do – but his jagged queries are worthy of answers.

This play was written and first staged in 2019, yet instead of feeling dated its contents become more profound in the light of what would happen in America over the next three years. One can argue if the Pandemic is the Fourth Turning, or if events have damaged the presumptions of Strauss and Howe’s work, but what’s portrayed are what people did (and do) think and feel.

Regardless of your place on the political spectrum, this is a worthy challenge to experience, leavened with a few situational laughs and a curious bit of supernatural edge. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, at the Basile IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at AmericanLivesTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

Storefront: A comedy of the corrupt

By John Lyle Belden

The title, “Post-Democracy,” is a little misleading. This short darkly comic drama by Hannah Moscovitch, presented in its U.S. premiere by Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis, is less about the halls of government power than it is the ivory towers of corporate privilege where the truism, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” rings as true as your recently-signed non-disclosure agreement will allow.

Bill (Ronan Marra Sr.) has serious business on his mind. His health is forcing his hand in picking his successor as CEO. That would be distant cousin Lee (Alex Oberheide), the COO who just swung an acquisition deal for a manufacturing plant in Latin America, however the young man can’t stop acting like a misogynist jerk (complete with tics like a slimy Jim Carrey), enraging Bill’s daughter, Justine (Tracy Herring), the CFO.

Meanwhile, Shannon (Carly Wagers), the executive working on preserving the company’s public image, is scrambling to contain the damage of Gary the Brand Manager’s flagrant sexual harassment. She seeks escape in the arms of Lee, who blurts a drunken confession that adds another layer of issues to an already deep mess.

How would you handle this? Or, to be more realistic, how would people with massive wealth and a lot more money and power at stake handle this? Does being in a third-world country make things more permissible? Does buying and nurturing an entire village of “those people” give you the moral high ground? Is the NDA binding?

While it would be easy to write off these characters as just four sleazy people, Moscovitch’s script, and these performances, directed by Ronan Marra (Jr.), won’t let it be that simple. Marra Sr. keeps Bill’s focus on his suddenly-fragile legacy. Herring’s Justine is holier-than-thou and privilege-blind, but means well, and perhaps sees herself (an adopted orphan) in a likely victim. Wagers shows how the demands of Shannon’s job eat at a soul she thought healed long ago. And Oberheide’s Lee, especially in a vino veritas moment, lets slip there might be some conscience beneath that frat-bro persona.

Plenty of food for thought here, entertainingly prepared. Bring your corporate boss (or their overworked assistant) to see “Post-Democracy,” through Jan. 29 at Storefront’s new home, 2416 E. 55th Place (near the Subway on N. Keystone, across from the Meier), Indianapolis. Tickets and info at storefrontindy.com.

Unique ‘Holiday’ story seeks to heal family

By Wendy Carson

As bright and sparkly as they appear to be, for a large number of us the Holidays ramp up our depression and sorrow. Such is the situation with the Abrams clan in “A (Happy) Holiday,” presented by Theatre Unchained.

Grandmother Bunny (Wendy Brown), mother Busy (Jenni White) and daughter Leigh (Wilhelmena Dreyer) are not only dealing with the death of son-in-law/husband/father Owen (Bradley Lowe), but also their lack of connection with each other. Into this mess enters the gloriously anthropomorphized chemical compound, Sarah Tonin (Ariel Laukins) along with the ever-perky duo of Elf 1 (Anja Willis) and Elf 2 (Thomas Sebald) to deliver a present to make their Christmakkah (being a blended family, they have a blended holiday) complete.

Reluctantly the ladies work their way through a giant magical book with 12 chapters of Holiday memories, forcing them to face their past – no matter how good, bad, or ugly. Leigh just wants to move forward and find her true self regardless of what her mom or society demand of her. Busy wants Owen back and will settle for nothing else. Bunny, who just wants everyone to be happy and get along, seems to down a lot of “holiday cheer” to keep her distracted.

This show has numerous parodies of holiday movies and TV shows as well as other pop culture touchstones to keep the laughs coming. However, the story pulls no punches in showing the sadness and sorrow of these women. Each comes to terms with pivotal moments of their past that damaged them, yet taught them to grow and carry on, to be their true selves.

This show is a true ensemble piece, executed with sheer perfection. Each performer being great on their own, together they will move you to tears of sorrow and joy. Speaking of ensemble, this play is a special project of Theatre Unchained, co-written by Karina Cochran, Kaya Dorsch, J.E. Hibbard, and director Max McCreary. They initially set out create a series of distinct holiday scenes, but found they fit together in a single theme, focused on this relatable yet unique family.

As you can tell, this show is not a typical Holiday story. Still, it is moving, touching, endearing, and entirely affirming for all. This should be at the top of your list of shows to see this month, especially since there are only three performances left, this Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 8-10, hosted by Arts for Lawrence at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave.

Good for teens and older, grab up those members of your family and come together for an uplifting story – maybe start an important dialogue to help make your own holiday complete. Get tickets at ArtsForLawrence.org.

Pain of decades-old loss lingers in McNally play

By John Lyle Belden

We are often reminded to “Never Forget” a devastating event or era, but those who went through it often can’t stop remembering. Every day, any little thing can bring up a memory of someone who was lost.

“Mothers and Sons” by Terrance McNally, presented by Main Street Productions in Westfield, has a cast of four actors, but there are five characters. Not present but very much felt is Andre, who died 20 years earlier during the AIDS epidemic. We are in the New York apartment, with a view of Central Park as lights come on during the longest night of the year, of Cal (Austin Uebelhor), who had been Andre’s partner and caregiver in his final days. To his mild surprise, he is visited by Andre’s mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Ruddell). Recently widowed, she arrived from Dallas (where Andre grew up) with plans to fly to Europe. Cal shares his home with husband Will (Nicholas Heskett) and their young son, Bud (Tyler Acquaviva).

We come to learn a lot about Cal, Will, Katherine, and Andre. Will chafes at the thought of competing with a ghost. Katherine still harbors resentments and denial – “Andre wasn’t gay when he went to New York.” Cal tries to keep the pain of the past in perspective even as it rises up to overwhelm him again.

“Who’s Andre?” Little Bud is chock full of questions, lots of questions.

This heartfelt play is a comedy, with lots of chuckles throughout, but there is pain that must be dealt with. Grief has no time limit or expiration; before the evening is done, so that Bud and his family can trim the Christmas tree, each adult will have their say.

Ruddell makes Katherine hard to love, but easy to understand. Heskett presents as a superficial millennial, but he emerges Will’s own sense of maturity. Acquaviva delivers the right level of charm. Uebelhor is superb as the man who has had to be a rock for so long, the cracks are undeniable.

Jim LaMonte directs, happy to present this play that he hopes “will broaden [people’s] definition of family.” For those of us who remember the 1980s and ‘90s, this show is also a loving tribute to the struggles so many endured – those who became names on a quilt, and those left behind to stitch them on.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. Get info and tickets at WestfieldPlayhouse.org.

Southbank’s ‘Shocks’: Trigger warning

“…To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d…”
 – William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 1

By John Lyle Belden

Angela takes shelter in the basement. We, the audience, find that the fourth wall is behind us; we are trapped with her. The approaching tornado roars. Threatening an “overwhelm,” a noun coined by her fellow insurance specialists, this event is not entirely fictional or even hypothetical: It is statistical. This will happen to Angela, it may – one day – even come to us.

This is “Natural Shocks” by Lauren Gunderson, presented by Southbank Theatre at the Fonseca Theatre. Directed by New York-trained local actor Eric Bryant, Carrie Ann Schlatter delivers a fascinating performance, drawing us into her world of risks that can be quantified, but are more than cold numbers when calamity happens to you. She feels a kinship with Hamlet (inspiring the play’s title, see above), noting the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy is not so much about suicide but just mulling over the options of the cost/benefit of staying alive, vs. not.

Angela tells us of the life that led her up to this moment, of choices made, love lost and found, and a stand she needed to take. Spoiler alert: She lies when she says her husband is a good man. Also, there is a gun. It will be used.

This intense nonstop hour-plus drama is engaging and important viewing, though possibly triggering for those who can relate to this woman’s plight. Her ordeal becomes, for a moment, ours to bear. Tornadoes are unpredictable and wildly destructive – the same with what happens here.

Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 17-20, at 2508 W. Michigan Ave., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at SouthBankTheatre.org.

OnyxFest: A Noise in the Attic

This play is part of OnyxFest 2022, a production of Africana Repertory Theatre of IUPUI (ARTI) and IndyFringe, “Indy’s First and Only Theater Festival Dedicated to the Stories of Black Playwrights.” Initial performances were the weekend of Nov. 3-6 at the Basile Theatre in the IndyFringe building. The second weekend of performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 10-12, at the IUPUI Campus Center Theater, 420 University Boulevard, Indianapolis. Recordings of performances will be available at ButlerArtsCenter.org. For more information, see OnyxFest.com.

By Wendy Carson

Abuse of a loved one doesn’t have to be physical, success sours when it’s not shared, and sometimes things that go bump in the night aren’t so bad, as revealed in “A Noise in the Attic,” by OnyxFest executive producer Vernon A. Williams.

Mr. Adams (ShaQuan Davis) appears to be the perfect husband and father, appropriate for a lawyer with a promising political career. But his daughter Cathy (Vae Savage) is an absolute brat who gets anything she wants from him, including silent permission to bully her stepmother Rita (Selena Jackson-King).

This situation, and the fact that her own desires have to be put on the back burner yet again, has Rita frustrated beyond belief. Plus, rather than do it himself, Adams is making her search the attic to discover the source of the strange noise that has been occurring over the past week.

However, a chance encounter with down-on-his-luck singer Walker (Atiyyah Radford) helps put things into perspective, awakening Rita to the truth about herself and her situation.

In the end, everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

Jackson-King does a great job balancing her character’s compassion for Walker’s plight against her struggles with propriety and devotion to her family, brought to focus by aspiring poet/performer Rita’s brave verse. Davis brings forth all the slick, playboy moves to reflect his character’s selfish attitude towards women. Savage portrays Cathy’s attitude so well, you will fight the urge to show her discipline and what true respect is. With a wry smile, Radford brings us the story of someone struggling his way to the top; his aspirations were crushed by the Pandemic, but not his spirit.

Angela Wilson-Holland is a comical delight as Rita’s Aunt Helen, who tries to talk her out of an obviously crazy plan. Jamillah Gonzalez does a great job of portraying Adams’ secretary, looking to make moves of her own.

Director Debora Farrell has done an excellent job of bring William’s script to life, making each character so realistic you will revel in the karma of the climax, as well as the revelation of what exactly is in the attic.

A ‘Sense’ of optimism at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

It’s intriguing to see how a classic work of literature is interpreted in adapting to the stage. If, upon hearing that Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre, you think you only recently saw it, you’d be mistaken. The IRT version, adapted by Jessica Swale, is not the play that was performed at the Civic Theatre in 2018.

The differences go beyond the name on the program. While a major theme of “Sense and Sensibility” is, in all cases, the lack of power women had in English society and law, the Kate Hamill script used by Civic emphasizes the insidious nature of gossip as both social control and cheap entertainment. Though Swale’s take has a definite nod to the wagging tongues, there is an overall lighter touch to the story. Aside from its characters’ struggles, the novel’s situations are rife with bits of humor. And in that the earlier production could be considered a “rom-com,” IRT’s show is more of a sitcom.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Dashwood (Elizabeth Laidlaw) and her daughters Elinor (Helen Joo Lee), Marianne (Cereyna Jade Bougouneau), and Margaret (Claire Kashman) find themselves kicked out of their home. The girls’ half-brother John Dashwood (Ron E. Rains) inherits the property, and his spiteful elitist wife Fanny (Devan Mathias) wants it all to herself. The displaced Dashwoods move to a cottage near the sea, under the eye of cousin Sir John Middleton (Rains) and his busybody mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Priscilla Lindsay).

While prospects for young English women around the year 1800 with hardly any dowry aren’t good, our heroines have the fortune to attract suitors including Fanny’s kind brother, Edward Ferrars (Casey Hoekstra); local gentleman Colonel Brandon (La Shawn Banks); and the dashing John Willoughby (Nate Santana). They are vying for the hand of Elinor or Marianne – young Margaret, a budding “naturalist,” is too occupied with her collection of invertebrates and sea creatures.

But then, Jennings’ cousin Lucy Steele (Caroline Chu) confides to Elinor her secret engagement to one of the men.

Some actors play more than one part, such as Hoekstra’s entertaining moments as Edward’s goofy brother. Also notable is that Mathias – ironically a nice person offstage – manages to play four distinct characters, none of which you want to spend more than a few seconds with, often to hilarious effect.

The play also features ethnically blind casting, which in these days of “Bridgerton” on TV and online debates over the color of a mermaid don’t seem too odd. Besides, no one on stage is an 18th-century English person in real life. These actors were picked for exceptional talent and stage presence, and none feel out of place. In fact, the most surreal of this company is how Santana looks like he just stepped out of the cover illustration of a Harlequin romance novel.

And we must note that it is wonderful to see Pricilla Lindsay again; a past IRT mainstay, she has been working at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Her joyous presence as ever-optimistic Mrs. Jennings is like a reflection of Lindsay herself.

Directed by Peter Amster (who also directed “Pride and Prejudice” at IRT years ago), this classic story of romantic misadventure has its serious moments, but despite the threat of tragedy, love and laughter shine through – something we can hope for in our day as well.

Performances run through October 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.

‘Sweeney Todd’ now serving customers at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

The dirty streets of 19th century London have been a rich source of great stories, from the fact-inspired fiction of Charles Dickens to the fiction-inspiring facts of Jack the Ripper. Out of these shadows steps “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Now, attend the tale at Footlite Musicals.

This murderous denizen of Dickens-era penny-dreadfuls is the subject of a popular 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by Hugh Wheeler, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. Perhaps you’ve seen the Tim Burton film, or the occasional stage show over the years. Under the direction of Josh Vander Missen, this Footlite production still manages to thrill.

Daniel Draves masterly uses his average-joe looks as the title character. Todd is just another man getting off a boat, a friendly barber – or with a small shift of expression he casts an air of menace, or even madness. He wields a sort of gravitas as well as those trademark silver blades.

Jennifer Simms is a spot-on pitch-perfect Mrs. Lovett on a par with stage and screen notables who have taken on the infamous pie shop. She needs better meat, though, and Todd needs a disposal method as he slashes his way towards long-overdue revenge – you see where this is going.

Troy Bridges is adorable in manner and voice as Anthony Hope, the sailor whose life Todd saves on their recent voyage (for Todd, who had been sent away under another name, it is his secret return from exile). Hope becomes just that as he seeks to rescue Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Christina Krawec) from the evil Judge Turpin (Ben Elliott).

While Elliott makes Turpin downright creepy, Donald Marter portrays the judge’s assistant, Beadle Bamford, as more of an amoral product of his time. You get the sense that if he were hired instead to bust heads for Mr. Todd, he’d do so with the same joy in a day’s “honest” work.

Parker Taylor excels in (pardon the expression) a meaty role as somehow-innocent youth Tobias Ragg. He’ll talk up a crowd for you, seeing it as more a game than a grift, and returns Lovett’s kindness with total devotion.

Other notable roles include Rick Barber as Todd’s rival, Adolfo Pirelli; a cameo by Dan Flahive as bedlam-keeper Jonas Fogg; and Melody Simms as the ever-present Beggar Woman.

One nice touch to this production is the opening overture is played on Footlite’s 1925 theater pipe organ (the full orchestra plays though the musical).

Set designer Stephen Matters delivers on one of the show’s true “stars,” the modified barber chair which Todd uses to dispatch and dispose of his victims, sitting upon a versatile two-story wooden frame.

Equal parts gothic thriller and dark comedy with a good serving of Sondheim, this “Sweeney Todd” is worth experiencing, or revisiting if you’ve met the man before. Performances run through Oct. 2 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at Footlite.org.

Dark side of humanity and academia explored in new play

By Wendy Carson

With “The Profession,” Marcia Eppich-Harris has written a play that encompasses our current political and social climate just a little too well. I was privileged to attend a staged reading of the script a couple of months ago and it has stayed with me ever since. Her script roots out not only the dark underbelly of male dominance and what men will do to protect their own, but also the appalling lack of power or support women have when confronting a system stacked against them. Needless to say, nobody emerges from this story unscathed.

Two main storylines intertwine here. One is about Valerie (Becky Schlomann), a dedicated literature teacher at a small, private university who is desperately fighting to keep her job. Secondly, we have Marina (Trick Blanchfield), the impassioned student every teacher longs for, just trying work her way through college no matter how she has to swing it.

Valerie’s nemesis in her plight is Mark (Brad Staggs), a dean still smarting from her questioning of his decisions last fall and ensuring that her future employability is forever doomed. Department chair Jill (Jeri Jackson) has no desire to ruffle feathers herself. Meanwhile, Theology professor Paul (Brian Stuart Boyd) is also relieved of his job, but with a much better settlement check, wonderful references, and a promising spot at a major university.

For her dedication to learning, Marina deals with the exorbitant fees and ends up working as a stripper in order to stay in school. At the club just off campus, she is mentored by the lovely, yet jaded, Lucy (Lola Lavacious) and watched over by the club’s tough but fair manager Flint (Tom Smith).

Seeing Valerie, her favorite teacher, getting a raw deal, Marina divulges to her the seedy goings on by college staff at the club. Valerie’s personal morality keeps her from using this dirt, at first. But as the situation gets ever more serious, and dangerous, she knows she will have to do something.

This drama pulls no punches in all it entails. It does contain vivid discussions of sex work and abortion. As I noted above, the abuse of power and workplace discrimination are rampant as well. Still, it shows vividly how gender politics, as well as other ills contained within, play out in a realistic manner. Eppich-Harris and director Elisabeth Speckman both drew on their experiences in academia in creating this work and bringing it to painfully vivid life.

The cast is sheer perfection with each one embodying the true soul of their character. While Schlomann and Blanchfield are easy to root for, and to understand the impulsive decisions they feel necessary to make, Jackson and Staggs come off so oily with corruption you may need to remind yourself they’re just good actors if you see them off-stage. Boyd has two faces to work with in his character, and plies them well. Smith, a natural at paternal roles, is no angel, but feeling no need to put on a façade, Flint comes off better than the learned men who frequent his club. Also, a shout-out to Ms. Lavacious – while she has years of stage performance under her belt, this is her first performance in a scripted show.

I cannot recommend this play enough. The concurrence of its opening on the same date as the state’s abhorrent anti-abortion law taking effect feels like a sign that maybe with enough encouragement, we can make some real and lasting changes for the good of all. I honestly hope you leave the theater in this frame of mind as well.

Presented by Southbank Theatre Company, performances of “The Profession” run through Sunday, Sept. 25, at Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at southbanktheatre.org. (Note: Venue requires masks due to close proximity between audience and stage.)

ALT: What happened there

By John Lyle Belden

In the early 2000s, by annual average there was a suicide in Las Vegas roughly every 26 hours. However I feel about this, I can be confident it is true, as someone checked. The serious and fraught topic of self-harm is what gives the play “The Lifespan of a Fact” its riveting emotional heft, but at its core is the principle noted in the previous sentence.

This drama – with hilarious comic moments to get through the serious context – by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is presented by American Lives Theatre, directed by Chris Saunders, at the Phoenix Theatre. It is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detailing their struggle with D’Agata’s 2010 essay in The Believer magazine.

Editor Emily Penrose (Eva Patton) calls upon intern Jim Fingal (Joe Wagner), a recent Harvard graduate, to fact-check the piece by D’Agata (Lukas Felix Schooler), which is ready to go to print in just a few days. Fingal is told to give it his best effort, as the writer is known to take liberties with details. “Give it the ‘full Jim’,” Penrose instructs, and boy, does she get it.

The essay, focusing on a teenager’s suicide – jumping from the city’s tallest casino tower – to comment on the greater culture of Las Vegas, is riddled with factual errors, starting with the lead paragraph. While the death itself is well-documented, various added details are wrong. Penrose tells Fingal to bring them up directly to D’Agata, which he does by flying out to visit his Vegas apartment.

At first the altered “facts” are trivial, inspiring much of the humor. When Penrose is alerted to one that could get the magazine in legal trouble, she, too, travels from to New York to Nevada, just hours before the presses in Illinois roll for national distribution.

I must note my own bias here. I am an experienced journalist, including a university Journalism degree and experience at four daily newspapers (most recently the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, Ind.). In my mind there was no question that D’Agata was in the wrong with the initial version of the essay. Deviations from the truth, even in details having nothing to do with the core event, and especially easy to confirm and debunk, hurt the credibility of not only the periodical and the writer, but also the valid point of the story itself.

However, D’Agata argues, this isn’t a news “article” but a non-fiction “essay,” and “the wrong facts get in the way of the story.” He justifies altering events for his writing’s symmetry, or because the wording doesn’t “sing” to him otherwise. What could appear as indulging in ego he sees as a higher calling to a deeper “truth.” Having gone to extensive research, interviews, and discussions with the deceased’s family, he feels too personally invested to submit to the smallest correction or alteration.

For his part, Fingal appears absurdly nit-picky – what color were the bricks, how many strip clubs were there? But what we would call “white lies” also contain more misleading falsities, and if any were detected by a reader, he notes, that same person could decry the whole essay as a “hoax” on social media.

Penrose understands the writer isn’t, strictly speaking, a journalist, and her magazine is more literary than hard-news, but she insists on having standards. Still – the writing was so good she senses this could be a major milestone for the publication, if she could just get everyone in agreement on the actual text.

Patton, Wagner and Schooler deliver riveting, top of their game, performances. No winks at the audience, this is serious business involving real people and real incidents (both the publication of the essay and the death that inspired it). The humor is purely situational, the absurd that comes with doing one’s job, this time with higher stakes.

“Trigger Warning” is very much applicable here, if you hadn’t guessed by the subject matter. The play contains the most heart-wrenching moment of silence, and an ending that lets no one off the hook.

The ALT play runs through Sept. 25 at the Phoenix, 712 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis; details and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or americanlivestheatre.org.

The best-selling 2012 book, also called “The Lifespan of a Fact,” is still available in stores and online. The essay in question is still online in its checked, edited, and published form (Note: intensive discussion and description of suicide) here.