'The Purpose Project: Thao's Library' at Mustard Seed—Compassion And A Quest

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

It is easy to understand how people might be hesitant to see “The Purpose Project: Thao’s Library,” a one-person, multimedia show currently playing at Mustard Seed Theatre. It is, after all, about a severely deformed woman in a wheelchair. It’s no secret. Her image is on the promotional poster. It would be…uncomfortable to go to the show and be confronted by this pitiable image, yes? Better not to go than be confronted with such feelings. Except you would be making a mistake. A big one.

The Purpose Project: Thao's Library

Thao with Elizabeth Van Meter of “The Purpose Project: Thao’s Library.” Courtesy of Mustard Seed Theatre.

You may have even heard what it is about. An American woman experiences a personal tragedy, gets in a funk, sees a picture of this deformed Vietnamese woman who has started a make-shift library in her village, and when she’s asked what she wants most in this world, the malformed Vietnamese woman—an Agent Orange victim—says, ” Three-hundred dollars so I can buy more books for my library.” The American woman—Elizabeth Van Meter, who plays herself—is so inspired by this Vietnamese woman that she sets off on a quest to find her and present her with a suitcase full of books.

There are some squirmy moments, to be sure, and some details that are painful to contemplate, such as how Thao spent her first several years of life existing only in a bed of sorts, unable to be handled because she was too fragile; “liquid inside,” Van Meter says. But you will be missing a powerful story of personal struggle and kindness, of pain and suffering and joy. From the utterly horrific to acts so beautiful, they make us weep.

Van Meter gives an outstanding performance, and with Joe Ricci’s direction, presents an evening of outstanding, multi-media theater. The frequent projected images by photographer Stephen Katz and others, and video clips which range from humorous to highly poignant and impactful, blend seamlessly with the performance. John Sullivan’s lighting is perfect, and Emma Bruntrager did an excellent job with sound and projections.

You will come to find Thao beautiful. She will warm your heart, and her unselfishness will inspire. She reminds us that even as our country now debates whether to go a-bombing again, that there are real consequences that last for generations.

But more than that, “Thao’s Library” is a story of compassion and empathy, and how giving unto others returns untold benefits to the giver. In the end, it’s difficult to say whether Thao or Van Meter benefited more from the new friendship, which got Van Meter’s life back on track after her personal tragedy. In the process, she has done something heroic, and it’s nice to know that each of us has in our capacity to be heroes.

“The Purpose Project: Thao’s Library” continues through Sept. 15. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets are available through the Mustard Seed Theatre website, or call (314) 719-8060.

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