Today's Paper Newsletters LEARNS Guide Obits Distribution Locations Public Notices Digital FAQ Razorback Sports Crime Puzzles Today's Photos

APT hosts world premiere of Oren Safdie dramedy March 24

Safdie dramedy makes debut on APT stage by Becca Martin-Brown | March 19, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
Shirley (Terry Vaughan) loves her son Samuel (Kris Isham) more than is good for either of them. (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

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 24-25; 2 p.m. March 26; again March 30-31 and April 1-2

WHERE -- Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST -- $25-$50




Meet The Playwright

Playwright Oren Safdie will be guest of honor at the opening night of "Survival of the Unfit" on March 24 at Arkansas Public Theatre.

Safdie's "Checks & Balances" made its world premiere in 2012 at Arkansas Public Theatre, then Rogers Little Theatre. Also on the APT stage was "Things to Do in Munich" in 2018.

Safdie will be featured in the NWADG's Sunday Profiles section March 26.

  photo  Terry Vaughan is Shirley, the matriarch, in the Arkansas Public Theatre world premiere of Oren Safdie's "Survival of the Unfit." "Shirley is a very complex person," Vaughan says. "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." (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
  photo  Rissa Webber is Mallory, the girlfriend. "Mallory likes to talk, a lot, in this show," Webber says. "Trying to learn the lines and convey the variety of emotions behind them has been a challenge for me. Getting to work with such seasoned actors has been the biggest reward for me. They are all so supportive and encouraging." (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
  photo  Kris Isham is Samuel, the son trying to break free of his parents. "I love working on a show with a small cast," he says, "because it leaves more room for discussion and exploration of the characters and their smaller interactions during the performance. I think working together like that adds so much more depth and texture to the characters and their stories." (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
  photo  Tim Gilster is John, the patriarch of the family. "The challenge for me in this play is balancing John's charming personality while fulfilling his internal motivations throughout the play — it is easy to get carried away! The reward is that the character (John) is so much fun!" (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
  photo  Mallory (Rissa Webber, left) and Shirley (Terry Vaughan) stare each other down in a scene from "Survival of the Unfit." (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
  photo  The evening progresses from uncomfortable to cataclysmic in "Survival of the Unfit." (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

Print Headline: ‘Fun’ In Dysfunctional


Sponsor Content