There’s a moment in the beginning of the Children Theater Company’s Average Family when you think, Hmm, maybe this isn’t going to be another one of those preachy, warm-hearted, message-driven plays about the joys and rewards of rediscovering one’s lost Native American heritage.
It’s a brief moment. Dad comes home from work and plops on the couch to take a nap. Mom isn’t home from work yet. The kids, a teenage boy and his younger brother and sister, start fighting. Dad loses his cool and starts yelling at the kids. They ignore him and keep fighting. Average family? Yep, that’s about right. Then Dad goes and blows the whole thing by signing the family up for a reality TV show in which the whole gang will live for an entire summer on the prairie as if they are living in the 1840s, competing with another family for a fabulous new . . . RV.
Setting aside the logistical difficulties of getting two working, middle-class parents to take three months off to tape a television show, the moment vanishes when it is announced—surprise!—that the rowdy Roubideaux family has been cast as “Indians” for this little excursion into the wilderness, and they will be competing against a family of “settlers,” the Monroes.
The Roubideauxs don’t know the first thing about being, ahem—Native Americans—except that mom, a lawyer, spent some of her childhood on the res. I don’t think I’m giving anything way by saying that, lo and behold, the Roubideaux family ends up learning a great deal about the forgotten knowledge of their ancestors, and this knowledge brings them together in the sort of preachy, didactic, warm-hearted way you (or at least I) tend to dread.
To be fair, however, there are plenty of teachable moments in Average Family, all of which you can take advantage of if you download the handy Teacher/Student Study Guide from the CTC website. And to be fairer still, this is a world premiere by playwright Larissa Fasthorse, so maybe it’s too much to expect anything close to, say, a Native American August Wilson. (Compare its treatment of culture and heritage to anything August Wilson wrote, though, and the play’s abundant flaws will quickly become apparent.)
The good thing about Average Family—the thing parents may want to know—is that it sends all the “right” messages about learning to live with your fellow man, working together as family, the spirit of generosity, et cetera. It’s got some funny parts, too—like the fact that Mom and Dad spend just as much time away from home scrounging for food on the prairie as they spend at their jobs in real life. The play makes some laudable attempts to dispense with stereotypes of Native American families in contemporary culture, but ends up exchanging them for a bunch of other stereotypes, so the score on the stereotype sensitivity meter is about even.
Average, you might say.
Average Family runs through October 6 at Children's Theatre Company.