APT hosts world premiere of Oren Safdie dramedy March 24

APT hosts world premiere of Oren Safdie dramedy March 24

At the end of “Survival of the Unfit,” you won’t walk out of Arkansas Public Theatre laughing and singing. This isn’t “Little Shop of Horrors.” But there is something inhuman — vile, grotesque, maybe even monstrous — growing in the little suburban household of playwright Oren Safdie’s imagination. It deserves to be seen, explored — and perhaps a lesson learned that might keep it from proliferating in other households elsewhere.

What that lesson is is something you’ll have to help decide.

“I love the roller coaster ride this play provides for actors and the audience,” says director Ed McClure.

Safdie is an old friend of APT, introduced to Northwest Arkansas because his father, Moshe Safdie, designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “Survival of the Unfit” is a world premiere, the third of Safdie’s shows to open on the APT stage.

The unhappy household in question is made up of Shirley, her husband John and their only son Samuel. As we step into this particular evening, everything is in an uproar because Samuel has invited a date home to meet Mom and Dad. Mallory has been warned about Shirley’s “biting wit,” but even a trained therapist can’t be prepared for the dysfunction served up at this dinner table.

“Shirley is a very complex person,” says actress Terry Vaughan, who comes to the APT stage with decades of experience in New York. “She is a fierce, domineering, strong willed, successful woman who runs her household with an iron fist and bluntly expresses exactly what she thinks and feels without any ‘polite’ buffers.

“She is incessant,” Vaughan goes on. “She does what she does because she believes it is best for everyone. However, ‘hurt people hurt people,’ and Shirley leaves a trail of blood behind her from all of the wounded individuals she bludgeons everywhere she goes.”

John, says actor Tim Gilster, “is a poet, husband and a father. He is a great positive force on this earth. Some might say that John is self-involved and overly flamboyant, but I think it adds to his charm.” Gilster is also Vaughan’s husband, and the couple recently worked together on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for their own theater company, Smokehouse Players.

“My husband and I are always on the lookout for compelling scripts with good roles for us oldies,” Vaughan says. “We were very excited when we read the script for ‘Survival of the Unfit’ because it had terrific roles for both of us.

“I love playing complicated women, so this role is right up my alley,” she adds. “I think we all justify why we do what we do. Shirley’s actions are just a lot more extreme than the rest of us. When I work on her, I remind myself that she is motivated by what she believes is best for her family — but unfortunately, she is unconsciously doing what is best for her, not them, so it gets very messy and twisted.”

Kris Isham, who appeared in Safdie’s “Things To Do in Munich,” is their son, Samuel, “someone who has struggled to become his own person.”

“His mother works very hard to bring order to a chaotic world full of surprises and pain, but in doing so she is often cold and alienating to those who are closest to her,” Isham says. “Samuel’s father desperately wants to see love and light in everything and everyone around him, but his avoidance of conflict means he has lost much of his own agency over time. To an extent, Samuel appreciates both of these qualities in his parents, but he does not understand how to bring these two qualities into harmony within himself, and that has probably caused him to stall out in his emotional maturity.

“Without giving too much away,” Isham adds, “I think it’s fair to say this script depicts what might be one of the most catalytic evenings in the lives of each of these characters.”

Setting the cataclysm in motion is Mallory, who was first Samuel’s therapist and is now his girlfriend. She is, says APT newcomer Rissa Webber, “a lot.”

“She seems put together on the outside but … she has a lot of trauma from her past that she overshares with the family.”

So is Shirley a monster?

“I know the audience will want to strangle Shirley for her ruthless meddling, but I hope they can also see her side in the push and pull between all four of the characters in this play, even if they don’t agree with her choices,” Vaughan says. “This script poses a lot of questions about love, loss, loyalty, betrayal, and what ‘family’ really means. I hope folks will be thinking about all of that on the way home and for weeks after the show is over.”


‘Survival of the Unfit’

WHEN — 8 p.m. March 30-April 1 and2 p.m. April 1-2

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — $25-$50

INFO — arkansaspublictheatre.org


Categories: Theater