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A tale of two cities: Zuehlke co-writes play about partnership's beginnings

Playwright Jessica Zuehlke stands by the sister city sign in Worthington's Chautauqua Park. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- On the 60th anniversary of the partnership between Worthington and Crailsheim, Germany, Jessica Zuehlke was part of the delegation that traveled to Germany in 2007 for the milestone sister city festivities. She once again heard the story of how two young pen pals -- one European, one American, separated by an ocean and a language barrier -- planted the seed that grew and flourished into a strong bond between the two communities.

"I've always been struck by this story, and being a teacher, by the power of children's insights, their immediate reactions to situations -- how they want to help," explained Jessica, the daughter of Cal and Nancy Zuehlke of Worthington and a longtime theater professional. "They behoove us to be better, dig deeper, reach out more."

The two pen pals -- Kertuu Seikkenen Karkkainen of Finland and Martha "Marnie" Cashel McCarthy of Worthington, now of Santa Fe, N.M. -- met for the first time during that 2007 gathering in Crailsheim, and Jessica felt even more drawn to their story.

"To see them interact at age 71, after 60 years of friendship, made me wish I was a filmmaker," she recalled. "I went home and thought, 'I really think this could be a children's book,' but I could never get that organized, and I haven't written a children's book before, either."

But Jessica had written a play before. She and her husband, Jim Stowell, collaborated on the writing of the popular "Church Basement Ladies" comedy musical. Jessica and Jim spend seven months of the year in Red Wing and five months in Bayfield, Wis., where Jim is the caretaker of the lighthouse and they operate a nightly tourist rental, Maypenny Place Suites, in addition to their theatrical pursuits. Between their many endeavors, Jessica and Jim began toying with the idea of a musical based on the story of how a southwest Minnesota community came to adopt a town in Germany in the wake of World War II.

"We started messing around with it on the side," Jessica said. "This had to be on our own time, because there was no producer or anyone interested it."

In order to make it a cohesive production, the playwrights took a bit of literary license with the pen pal story.

"When you're writing something based on a true story, you take the essence of it, and you may need to create incidences or other material around it to bring the truth of the story out," explained Jessica. "As artists, if your form is a play or movie or novel or poem or song, there's going to be fiction and nonfiction blended together so the feeling, the impact, is what you felt like you were in the experience, or what the person felt. Your job as an artist is to use your skills to get to that place."

Jessica and Jim's challenge was to relay the difficulties of the situation -- an American town reaching out to a group of people who had recently been considered the enemy -- in the abbreviated context of the play.

"So we don't have the girl in Finland; we have the girl in Germany," said Jessica. "We only have two hours, and we need to get right to the point, to the sweetness of the children's pen pal letters, and the difficulties faced by adults on both sides of it, the reactions and the reverberations. In the play, as the children start to collect the shoes and more and more goods start coming in to the family unsolicited, we build the tension of certain individuals in the communities, escalate the bureaucracy until we get to the right bureaucrat who gets it, and he does the match to Crailsheim, makes everything happen.

"The play is about the heart of what happened."

Titled "A Wagon Load of Shoes," the play has gone through a number of incarnations, but now Jessica and Jim believe they have a somewhat finished product that just needs a bit of tweaking and historical fact-checking. They decided it would be best staged as a play with music.

"We've been looking for a composer and lyricist for a couple of years and were at a dead end," Jessica shared. "Most composers we talked to loved the story ... but we didn't have any financing for them. Then we found a composer who wanted to work on it, even without funding immediately, and he found a lyricist, so they are just writing the first pen pal songs right now. We will meet with them in June to look at the first music. It will be a musical, although I hesitate to use that word. It's a play with music. It will be child-friendly, but there will be some tough stuff in there -- talk between soldiers in both American and Germany ... striving for balance politically."

A former soldier, still shell-shocked by his war experiences, serves as the catharsis in the play, Jessica shared, and in the end he donates his Army boots to the community effort.

"Symbolically, the Army boots is the healing thing. His transformation, his forgiveness, represents the new dreams, after being in this dark period of time in the world," Jessica said.

The next step toward moving the project forward is a staged reading, and plans for several are in the process. Two readings have been tentatively scheduled in Minneapolis -- one in the fall and another next spring, with six or more musical pieces completed. Jessica also hopes to schedule one at Worthington's Memorial Auditorium, using local talent. The first version of the play had a cast of 40, but they have now trimmed it to 12 to make it more fundable.

While they've had some interest from producers and possible venues, Jessica wants to find the right fit for the full production.

"We need to do some theater shopping," she said. "I'm torn between wanting it to open on a major stage or open at Memorial Auditorium," she explained. "The funding and finances will reveal what's best. We'd love to see it open with the best that we can get. We think the children and the story deserve the best we can get. We hope at some point we will get some connections in Germany, as well. ... Ideally, we can get it mounted, bring it to Worthington or Sioux Falls, and then we'd love to have some German artists collaborate and do a translation. Here it would be in English with some German, but over there, German with some English."

Another possible source of help in getting the production staged comes from a renowned theater program.

"Our biggest potential right now is at the Lied Center, this really great art center in Lincoln, Neb.," Jessica said. "They have a national program where they invite playwrights and musical theater people to submit their scripts and their work, and they choose a few of those and bring the playwrights and composers down and provide work time and space, actors and actresses. They are crazy excited about this and want us to apply next year in May, which could mean by 2015 we could see a production somewhere."

But the wheels in the theater world don't turn very quickly, and everything comes down to funding. For Jessica, the production can't move forward fast enough.

"I've had people tell me ... 'I want to see this before I die,'" she related, referring to some key players in the sister-city partnership, "but it's a glacial process. We're in year six for this, but 10 years is not unusual for a big play."

Jessica recently talked about the project with a visiting delegation from Crailsheim and their host families, and she stressed the importance of building on the partnership.

"In talking with the German students, I told them, 'One of you needs to become a filmmaker and record what we have going on here,'" she said. "The play is about the heart of what happened, and hopefully it will lead us to our next relationship. ... I hope the play, besides sharing the story with the public at large, also supports both communities and what they are currently doing, as well as what our young people see next -- what our next job is."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.