This review of Elizabeth Van Meter's Thao's Library at The Lion Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written & Performed by Elizabeth Van Meter
Directed by Joe Ricci
The Lion Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
New York, New York 10036
In 1993, at the age of 11, Vicki Van Meter flew her Cessna 172 across the country, becoming the youngest female to do so. The following year, she flew a Cessna 210 across the Atlantic Ocean. On both flights, she was accompanied by an instructor, but she reported to the world she was "alone behind the controls." Vicki wrote a book ("Taking Flight"), became a minor celebrity, and was an inspiration for young women everywhere. In 2008, Vicki, at the age of 26, committed suicide. Elizabeth Van Meter, Vicki's older sister, falls into a crippling depression convinced she "could have done more" to save her. I am told "Thao's Library," the 2015 documentary, explores the causes of Vicki's suicide. Not so here in Elizabeth Van Meter's one-woman show also entitled Thao's Library (which includes video clips from the documentary).
In this multi-media play, the focus is on Elizabeth and how she eventually overcomes her despair and anguish by helping others; in particular Thanh Thao Huynh, a 25-year-old young Vietnamese woman whose body is shrunken and twisted allegedly due to genetic defects caused by Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used by the United States during the Vietnam War. Stephen Katz, a photojournalist who originally showed Thao's photograph to Elizabeth, is also supposedly suffering from the lingering effects of Agent Orange his father was exposed to during the war. When asked by Stephen what Thao would like most in the world, she responded she would like $300.00 so she could purchase more books for her library, which she established for the children of her village in one corner of her family's storage facility. Elizabeth Van Meter adopted this particular cause as her own, asked for book donations, and was off to Vietnam to deliver them personally to Thao.
During the play, Elizabeth recalls her upbringing and happier times with her family. As a little girl, she always said the Lord's Prayer and then asked God to bless people before going to sleep. At some point, she stopped praying because she "didn't know who she was praying to or who she was praying for." Five days before her sister's suicide, she "felt an urge to pray," probably because she perceived her sister was in crisis. In Vietnam, while staying at an Old Folk's Home down the road from Thao's house, she again found herself on her knees praying to a statue of Maya, Buddha's mother. A dog also seemed to be following her around and a very confused and distraught Elizabeth later reminded herself that Maya was also the name of her deceased sister's dog. What we have here is a woman trying to make sense of the world and of circumstances beyond her control. During her monologues, Elizabeth often expresses her insecurities and fears. She wonders whether she has over promised and taken on too many responsibilities. She recognizes the possibility she might be trying to be an older sister to Thao in a way she can no longer be for Vicki.
Despite her disabilities, Thao considers herself lucky. As she says, "I have a family, my mind, and my library." She volunteers at the local orphanage and brought Elizabeth there "to plant a seed of love inside your heart." Thao taught herself to read and write. She now tutors other village children and sells cigarettes and cell phone sim cards to locals in order to raise extra cash. Thao is clearly an inspiration and the documentary clips presented during the play are very emotionally moving. Elizabeth Van Meter wrote Thao's Library, which is now having its world premiere at The Lion Theatre. Coincidentally, Thao also performed in a play she wrote about her experience meeting Elizabeth. Thao once told Elizabeth, "The good leaves will cover the torn leaves, and the torn leaves will cover the shredded leaves." Elizabeth's take on that is that "we are all shredded; we are all torn." She now believes her sister Vicki "has expanded and is now everywhere" and that somehow "together we are whole (good leaves) covering one another."
Elizabeth recognizes that had her sister "not made the choice she did," she wouldn't have taken a second look at Thao's photograph. The subtitle of the play says it all - "A sister lost. A purpose found." Elizabeth Van Meter raised funds and went back to Vietnam to build Thao a larger and more modern library. In doing so, she also founded The Purpose Project, an organization that searches for dynamic individuals with a driving sense of purpose who are being of service to their community, helping these individuals achieve a dream and sharing their stories with a wider audience. (www.The-Purpose-Project.org) All For One Theater is the producer of Thao's Library and is dedicated to the art of Solo Performance.
Thao's Library leaves you with a number of thoughts and reflections. No matter how bad things get, they could always be worse. If you have someone in your life you really care about who needs your help, do what you can now so you don't regret not having done enough later. Seek out people doing amazing things and help them if you can. Finally, you don't need to find hidden meaning in stray dogs who follow you down dirt paths in Vietnam or pray on your knees before a statue of Maya looking down on you while a dog who may hold the spirit of another living dog named Maya looks up at you. Just get up and do something worthwhile with your life that helps others! Thao's Library is inspirational and a tribute to all who have made it past depression to lead productive lives! It runs through May 7, 2016. Catch it while you can! Tickets cost $36.25 and can be purchased at 212-239-6200 or at www.Telecharge.com