Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review: Finding a Purpose

by Michael Block

Everyone's journey through grief is different. There's no formula in how you grieve and how long you spend at each step but rest assure, you'll make a stop at each. When it comes to blame, it's human nature to place blame on others or yourself. In Elizabeth Van Meter's emotionally draining Thao's Library, Van Meter finds a way to displace the blame through a selfless act for a stranger halfway around the world.
Like a companion piece to the documentary of the same name, Thao's Library is the solo show act about Van Meter's spirited journey to Vietnam to give the gift of love through books. After the sudden loss of her sister, famed child aviator Vicki Van Meter, Elizabeth tries to find a purpose in life. Thanks to a layover, Elizabeth visits an old friend who shows her a picture of a young woman in Vietnam who has a countryside library. While one relationship fades to memory, a new one flourishes as Elizabeth and Thao form a bond you can only see to believe. Thao’s Library is a sweet story that is destined to tug at your heart. The content is beautiful. To bring the piece to the stage, Van Meter introduces her piece through dueling narratives. First, her journey to Thao. Second, her relationship with her sister. To keep the audience intrigued, Van Meter sporadically crafts her piece bouncing from narrative to narrative. In the Thao narrative, Van Meter keeps things pretty straight forward and honest. We get the full story. In the Vicki narrative, Van Meter institutes a bit of mystery. We don’t learn until pretty late about Vicki’s untimely death. We know that Vicki plays an integral part into Elizabeth’s journey but it’s fairly vague until late in the play. With one narrative being so present, the other being so elusive, trying to tie the two together until the grand reveal is hard. Thao’s story is more compelling. While the cryptic nature is theatrical, it may not service the unfamiliar audience best. What ties the three women together is how three separate people struggle with pain through the lens of three separate situations. Van Meter explores pain through the lens of physical, mental, and emotional. That’s the thread that brings them together. If the mystery is desired, perhaps beginning the piece with some sort of tie in to universal pain unifies the entirety. Finding the key to understanding is almost a prevalent part to Van Meter’s piece. Discovering the why and how is something we all go through so viewing someone put voice to a personal situation was rewarding in a cathartic manner.
photo by Maria Baranova-Suzuki
Having knowledge of the source documentary likely helps the stage play, but for those unaware, Van Meter layers in some photos and video. You are almost emotionally ambushed through the use of multi-media. This play is successful due to it. Without it, this story may not have resonated the way it did. Hearing is one thing, but seeing opens up the opportunity to tap into the heart. The projection design by Van Meter and director Joe Ricci was visually stunning. Whether through tears or smiles, you will emote. With the nature of the piece being pretty static, Ricci ensured that the transitions were sharply defined. Lighting designer Ed McCarthy did an impeccable job exploring looks that transported Van Meter through her locales. McCarthy certainly capitalized on moods. Something worth noting is space. The Lion is a giant theater with high ceilings and a pretty hefty stage. Ricci and Van Meter did an unbelievable job filling it and minimizing scenic assistance. Van Meter is a pretty decent storyteller but she manages to own the space.
Thao’s Library is a personal story yet it’s not. Whether you connect with Elizabeth Van Meter or not, you’ll leave the theater eager to watch the documentary and learn more about Thao.