Cherry Jones has proven herself as one of the greatest actors of her generation with her powerful work in both established and instant classics, from the Broadway productions of The Heiress and Doubt to John Tiffany’s revelatory staging of The Glass Menagerie, which enjoyed a triumphant run in London last year. Her latest outing is the world premiere of an American play that addresses a very topical concern — truth in media — though with a lot more nuance than that subject has inspired of late.
The Lifespan of a Fact — set to begin previews September 20 and open October 18 at Studio 54 — casts Jones as a magazine editor, Emily, who finds herself in a quandary after she appoints a budding journalist to fact-check a piece concerning a youth’s suicide, written by a celebrated author, and her young charge finds significant errors. The new play, by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, is based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, respectively represented on stage by Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe. D’Agata is the author, drawn here as a brilliant, swaggering character who does little to conceal his irritation with the Harvard-educated Fingal’s obsession with detail.
“What we have to make clear in the play is that this is not an article for The New York Times,” muses Jones, who sees Emily’s publication more as “maybe something a little down the totem pole from Vanity Fair. Magazines are desperate to stay alive right now, so for this editor to find a beautifully written piece that will have meaning for people, that’s too good to turn down. To fudge a number or a detail here so as not to sacrifice the poetry of the words, is that doing a disservice to the story or enhancing its power and emotional depth?”
Jones knows this a bold question to ask in our current environment, when terms like “fake news” are bandied about on both ends of the political spectrum. “I’d always been on the fact-checker’s side because of the world we live in now, but in rehearsal today I was swayed more into John’s way of thinking. His piece is trying to help people heal from a plague afflicting too many in this country. I think that’s become increasingly clear with the spate of young suicides we’ve seen recently. [Emily] has a noble reason for wanting to run the story.”
The actress admits her character “wasn’t all on the page” initially. “I frequently have a notion of what look will feel right for a character in a contemporary piece, but when I started speaking to the costume designer this time, I had no idea what she would wear, what her hair would be like, what her glasses would be like. I knew she would have a sense of style — not a slave to fashion, but someone who, when you saw the back of her hair, you knew it was that woman.”
In fleshing Emily out with the playwrights and director Leigh Silverman, Jones has come to appreciate “her passion for the magazine. She’s a career woman who has made that her life, so it’s like the magazine is her child, and the child is dying.” The character, like other aspects of the play, has been evolving in rehearsals: “We’re all working like little Trojans, the writers and Leigh and Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Radcliffe and me.”
Jones notes of her colleagues, “Our energies are all so different, and yet as people we have a similar way of approaching the work, and approaching the world, I think. I’d go as far as to say we’re all gentle and respectful people, so we feel secure each other, which is wonderful. And what’s interesting here is that the characters, for all their differences, all want the same thing, which is for this piece to be published and to reach the world — to reach the people who need it.”
While working on another emotionally and morally complex play, Doubt — which premiered Off-Broadway before moving to the Walter Kerr Theatre and earning Jones her second Tony Award — Jones recalls, she questioned some of director Doug Hughes’s guidance for her character, who was a nun and school principal with suspicions about a popular priest. “Doug kept giving me notes that were making her tougher and meaner, while Brían F. O’Byrne [as the priest] kept getting more and more charming,” Jones remembers. “I said to Doug, ‘They’re going to think I’m a Gorgon. I won’t have a chance to win anyone over.’”
In the end, both central characters in Doubt had their supporters among audience members, Jones points out, “and then there was this wise group somewhere in the middle.” Jones is optimistic that she and her collaborators on Lifespan of a Fact can inspire a similar reaction: “I love the arguments in this play, and I think they’ll create an interesting conversation and give the audience a lot to chew on.”