Like most one-person shows, and more than most, "The Purpose Project" is more storytelling than drama. The story was written by Elizabeth Van Meter, who also tells the story. She sees a photograph taken by a friend, Stephen Katz – Van Meter does briefly play Katz in conversation with her as she tells the story. Katz took the photograph in Viet Nam. It's a young woman severely deformed by the Agent Orange spread by U.S. troops during the war in that country. The young woman, Thao, has only vestigial legs and other deformities. But she has built up a small library in one of her family's farm sheds where she provides books for the local children. Van Meter is fascinated by this young woman and resolves to help her. And she does.
It's a lovely thing she does, and she tells us about it, helped by many videos and photographs taken by her friend Stephen Katz and others, edited by Greg Slagle, and all directed by Joe Ricci.
Into Thao's story, Van Meter interweaves the story of her younger sister, who became a celebrated airplane pilot before she reached her teens. The sister retraced – successfully – some of Amelia Earhart's flights. But she became troubled as she reached her 20s. Van Meter was unable to offer her the help she felt her sister needed and that she should have given her. Helping the Vietnamese woman Thao with her library became for Van Meter a substitution or compensation for the help she hadn't given her sister.
Van Meter shows fascinating videos of her sister as a celebrity on TV with Johnny Carson and others, but she tells little of the troubles that developed later – not enough to really pull us into the story of her relationship with her sister at that time. She tells us, briefly. She doesn't show us.
But she does show us the celebration at Thao's new library, and the excitement as books and more books fill the shelves. As I said, it's a lovely thing Van Meter has done. But for me, the telling of it doesn't make compelling theatre.