Theater can be a truly moving experience but rarely does one have the pleasure of watching a show that is heartfelt, moving, tragic and uplifting all at once. One of the best plays of the season, Elizabeth Van Meter’s brilliant multi-media performance titled “Thao’s Library” is all of that and more. As a one-woman show, the play is intimate and engrossing. Elizabeth is such a natural on stage that it is easy to feel as if you are talking with a friend rather than watching performance art.
“Thao’s Library” is a story that is gripping, beautifully told and all the more astonishing since it is completely factual. This multimedia project is based on a documentary film of the same name that chronicled Elizabeth’s journey to Vietnam to meet Thao, a young woman who was the victim of Agent Orange. Despite the challenges she faces, Thao is determined to have a full and happy life. She is dedicated to the children in her village and has opened a library on her family’s property. As stated in the official press release:
Thao’s Library is a multi-media play written and performed by Elizabeth Van Meter, with footage drawn from her own award-winning documentary of the same name. Van Meter’s discovery of a photograph propels her to rural Vietnam to meet a woman whose indomitable spirit inspired her to open a tiny library for in her home for children, who are first generation readers. Armed with a suitcase filled with books and a few hundred dollars, Van Meter was able to turn Thao’s dream into a reality by building a permanent structure filled with over 2,000 books for Thao’s library. Time Out said the documentary was “The best non-fiction film I’ve seen all year,” and the Boston Globe noted the film as "An extraordinary tale of resilience and serendipity."
While the description certainly gives audiences an idea of the plot, nothing can truly prepare you for the emotionally charged—and often humorously told—story that unfolds in the play. Elizabeth Van Meter is incredibly personable and likeable on stage, and she discusses her anguish over the suicide of her sister—a former child prodigy airplane pilot—in a heart-wrenchingly honest way. In many ways, the play vividly portrays how the death of a loved one can impact those left behind, the same way that chemicals left over from past wars can devastate future generations.
While coping with the grief over the loss of her sister Elizabeth discovered the existence of Thao, a disabled Vietnamese woman who started a library in order to help children in her village learn to read, write and enjoy the magic of books. Despite her difficult circumstances, Thao considers herself blessed to have a functional mind and a supportive and loving family – which is more than can be said for the scores of orphans who live in her village. In addition to helping children learn to read at her library, Thao makes a point to volunteer at the orphanage. Determined to help Thao expand her library’s book collection, Elizabeth journeyed to Vietnam to meet this extraordinary woman. Elizabeth visited the orphanage, documented the conditions of the children and witnessed the positive effects that books, stories and company have on them.
Although this play does not delve into the history of the Vietnam War in great detail, it is hard not to feel absolutely horrified by the aftermath of chemical warfare and its long-lasting and often mysterious effects. One could argue that Van Meter’s play has a strong anti-war message at its center – and yet, this story is so much more than that. It’s a personal tale about two young women struggling with emotional and physical challenges and finding ways to overcome them. It is about hope, kindness, and the positive differences that people can make in the lives of others with just a little bit of teamwork and effort. It is also about compassion: Elizabeth finds her purpose and overcomes her grief and guilt over her sister’s death by turning her energy towards a mission to help another individual who, in turn, tirelessly helps improve the quality of life for many others.
“Thao’s Library” uses a projected screen to share images and video clips with the audience and this—along with the fabulous performance by Elizabeth and the stellar audio and lighting arrangements—truly help bring the story to life. By the time you exit the theater, you will feel as if you have just returned from a trip to Vietnam. If you are interested in Thao’s continuing story, there is a website that is actively seeking book donations in order to continue growing her honorable library’s collection of stories in both Vietnamese and English.
Overall, this is an incredibly moving and powerful piece of live theater. If you have the opportunity to see this wonderful show, do not hesitate.
“Thao’s Library” will be performed at The Lion Theatre (410 West 42nd Street) on Theatre Row until May 7, 2016. Tickets are $36.25. For tickets and information about the show see here. Tickets can be purchased here.