Story: Elizabeth, a professional actress, is struggling to understand and accept a personal tragedy that has left her life tattered and torn. During a long flight layover, she renews her friendship with a photographer who shows her pictures of his recent travels. Among the photos is one of Thao, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who was born severely deformed as a result of Agent Orange.
Despite the debilitation of her deformities, including virtually no legs, Thao runs a modest library from her parents’ barn for the village children. Her greatest wish is for $300, with which she says she would buy more books for her library. Inspired by her story, Elizabeth travels to Vietnam with a suitcase of books, determined to meet Thao.
Through e-mails, correspondence and tracking via a Vietnamese driver and interpreter named ‘John Walsh,’ she is able to locate Thao and see first-hand what Thao has accomplished, as well as what remains to be done. Thao gives ‘purpose’ to Elizabeth and the motivation to help Thao build her own library.
Highlights: Elizabeth Van Meter wrote and performs this one-woman, one-act play that resulted from her meeting and subsequent friendship with Thao in the wake of personal tragedy. Van Meter’s drama originally was presented in 2012 as part of the “All for One Theatre Festival” in New York City.
Other Info: Van Meter plays out her story with just a stool and a chair set before an imposing video screen in the background. The projections on the screen include photos by Stephen Katz as well as video footage edited by Greg Slagle that was shot by Katz, Van Meter, Chris Tyree and Kyle McKeveny.
Van Meter is an engaging storyteller and sets the framework for her tale with humor and a breezy style. The Mustard Seed production is directed crisply by Joe Ricci, who is assisted by lighting designer Michael Sullivan, whose lighting meshes seamlessly with on-screen depictions of clouds or stars or Thao’s village. Sound and projection operator Emma Bruntrager incorporates sea gulls, banjo music and background tunes to supplement the story.
Once Thao is introduced, video takes a more prominent role in the presentation. Where the screen is annoying at first, intruding upon the viewer’s imagination, it becomes more important and significant as we watch Thao and Elizabeth as they interact, or catch the wide-eyed wonderment of children reading in Thao’s makeshift library.
While it’s a heartfelt story with an uplifting message, somehow Van Meter’s presentation leaves too much of a “look at what I did” impression, with more focus on her than one might expect. Her instincts are admirable and the results of Thao’s new library are delightful, but a humbler approach might work better in telling this inspirational tale.
Play: The Purpose Project: Thao’s Library
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: September 12, 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $20-$30 (or Pay With a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Katz