Who Dru would have been
The Wadena-Deer Creek High School One-Act play "In Memoriam: Voices of the Innocent" featured famous American tragedies such as Columbine and 9/11. However, a local tragedy spotlighted in the play took center stage last Thursday night when the parents of Dru Sjodin attended the performance in Wadena's Memorial Auditorium.
Sjodin, a 22-year-old Pequot Lakes native, was kidnapped and murdered in 2003.
No one knew Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, and father, Allan Sjodin, were in the audience until the end of the play, said Jay Patterson, Wadena-Deer Creek drama director.
"The audience was in disbelief when I announced Linda and her (Sjodin's) father were in the audience," he said. "There was an audible gasp."
Members of Sjodin's extended family, including some first cousins, also attended.
The performance evoked both raw emotions as well as a feeling of gratitude for Walker.
"It brought my unending sorrow to the forefront," she said during a phone interview Monday. "I was very emotional."
She also felt grateful her daughter is being honored in this way, she said. Hopefully the students and audience will be able to take the story and pass it down.
"The story has to be told," Walker said.
Many people have written poems and songs to honor Sjodin, but Walker said nothing has had the impact of Patterson's play.
"The story has so much meaning," she said. "It really puts things in perspective."
The play addresses the loss of innocence during defining moments in history such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Patterson wrote the play two years ago and gave a copy to Walker. He has corresponded with her several times since then, he said.
The play was not staged at that time due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter and the unresolved murder trial.
In 2007, the play was ready to produce, he said. But the trial was still not resolved and Patterson chose not to do it.
"So it's been sitting here waiting," he said.
This year the time was right. He wrote a letter to Sjodin's mother telling her the play was going to stage, he said. Her daughter's voice was going to be heard.
"As a mother of a murdered child you know how much they mean to you," Sjodin said. "We do like to honor our children, remember them, talk about them."
Although no one can know exactly what she experienced, Walker realizes other people can have an understanding of the impact, she said.
Justin Tucker played the role of Sjodin's father. He thought about what if Sjodin had been his sister, he said. And he tried to think about what her parents were going through.
He knew Sjodin's mother was going to be in the audience but he didn't find out until seven minutes before the play that her father was going to be there, he said. The situation was overwhelming and he had trouble speaking on stage a couple of times.
"It was a very, very emotional night having them there," he said.
The presence of Sjodin's parents in the audience meant more to him than he can verbally express, he said.
"I think my actions that night spoke louder than words," he said. "When I met her dad I kind of broke down."
Tess Kirkland assumed the role of Sjodin's mother. In one scene of the play she stands by a wedding dress and reflects on what it would have been like if her daughter had lived and had a wedding.
As Sjodin's mother, Kirkland said to the audience: "She will be a most beautiful bride. Her father will walk her down the aisle. I bet our grandchildren will have the same blond hair and blue eyes."
The image of a smiling Sjodin with short, blond hair became familiar to most Minnesotans after her disappearance in 2003. Patterson incorporated Sjodin's photo into a quilt featured in the play.
At the end of the play Jan. 24, student Jessica Katzenberger presented the quilt to Walker. Sjodin's father will receive the second quilt now featured in the play.
Sjodin's mother was strong but weeping when she accepted it, Patterson said.
"It was just an amazing moment," he said. "It was one of the richest moments I can remember from this kind of event."
The whole night was phenomenal, Walker said.
"Everyone was so incredibly wonderful and kind," she said. "I felt like I was coming home."
Walker drove through Wadena many times on the way to the trial of Sjodin's killer in Fargo, she said. On Thursday she enjoyed taking some time to drive around the town. She's read about Memorial Auditorium in the Brainerd Dispatch, she said.
The community is lucky to have such a beautiful theater, she said. And Wadena is also lucky to have Patterson.
Walker never met or spoke with Patterson before the play, she said. They corresponded via the mail.
As she watched the play it seemed like he understood the impact of her daughter's murder and the other acts of violence the play was about, she said. The play was very respectful of each victim.
Walker encouraged the community to not only see the students' exceptional performances, but to experience the meaning of the play, she said.
Another public performance of "In Memoriam: Voices of the Innocent" was at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Memorial Auditorium.
WDC drama won first place for its performance last Saturday at the subsectional competition and will advance to the sectional Saturday in Battle Lake.
However, for Patterson the students' success is measured by more than competition and starred performances.
"Even if they don't succeed at the next level something significant has happened already," he said about the students' experiences.
Patterson hoped to continue the learning experience through a visit to Sjodin's mother, stepfather and father in Pequot Lakes, he said. The students planned to visit some of Sjodin's favorite high school teachers as well as Dru's Garden in Pequot Lakes. And they held a candlelight vigil at Sjodin's grave site where the students recited part of the play. Walker planned to light the students' candles, Patterson said.
He hoped the day would be a special time in the life of his students, he said.
"I want my kids to know who Dru is, who she was," he said.
Sjodin is bigger than life now, he said.
"Dru has become the poster child of innocence and violation, how we as a culture need to protect those who are vulnerable," Patterson said.
He wants the students to get a sense of that, he said.
Walker likes the fact that a high school teacher wrote the play, she said. Sometimes young people can think they are invincible when they go out from underneath their parents' wings for the first time. Maybe this play will be in the backs of their minds as they go through life, she said. She hopes the play raises some awareness.
"[Then] it will be more than a drama on a stage, but a tool to be taken to life," Walker said.