By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Playwright Rob Zellers was looking for a place where he could capture the spirit and language of his hometown.
He found it in the back room of a fast-food eatery.
The result is “Mr. Wheeler’s,” a play that centers on a group of teenagers who work at a well-worn restaurant with that name in a faded neighborhood in Youngstown.
Mr. Wheeler’s eateries were once scattered around Youngstown, and they still exist in the mind of Zellers, a Boardman native who remembers eating at them when he was growing up.
Zellers’ play will get its world premiere this weekend when Youngstown State University Theater begins a two-weekend run at Spotlight Theater, inside Bliss Hall.
The play takes place in 2005. At its core is a group of streetwise teens who are dreaming of bigger things, even as they man the deep fryer.
One day a paper bag filled with money appears in the basement of the restaurant. As they debate where it came from and what to do with it, a second envelope arrives, and then a third and a fourth, and suddenly their plans for the future are not so clear.
Zellers, of Pittsburgh, is best known locally for his play “Harry’s Friendly Service,” which is set in Youngstown at the dawn of the collapse of the steel industry. “Harry’s” got its local premiere last year in a Youngstown Playhouse production at YSU.
In “Mr. Wheeler’s,” Zellers again relies on his penchant for sharp but spare dialog to give the characters their Youngstown identity. He described the play in a recent interview.
“This group of scruffy kids, poor kids, who have had lots of bad adults in their life, is so incredibly tough and resilient,” he said. “They are hard as nails and refuse to be stereotyped in any way. And every one has aspirations, even though they are on the bottom rung, and are all working toward that end. Some are stumbling, but they all have a resilient spirit.”
The play is being directed by Matthew Mazuroski, theater professor at Youngstown State University.
Zellers called Mazuroski “a dream come true” for a playwright working on the first production of his play.
“It is an enormous step from doing a reading to putting it on a stage,” said Zellers. “Matt has done it before and knows what needs to be done. At our first meeting he said ‘your set’s not going to work’ and he was right. There was too much cooking going on. We changed the location of the set [within the restaurant]. It was all in the back, but Matt said we were missing an opportunity to have the front of the restaurant in view. Now, we have both.”
Mazuroski said bringing the play to the stage has been a teaching tool for his students.
“This has been an amazing experience for the student actors because of the truly collaborative nature of working on a world premiere,” said Mazuroski. “[Zellers], myself and the students all help shape and craft what the audience will experience.”
That shaping process will continued, he explained.
“Whenever a previously produced play is mounted, each director, designer and actor puts their creative energies into creating a new take on the original. So the process when working on a world premiere is similar but we have the opportunity with ‘Mr. Wheeler’s’ to help [Zellers] in arriving at the final version of the script. I’m sure that [Zellers] will continue to shape and rework the play based on what he discovers with this production.”
Mazuroski said the play illuminates the lives and economic struggles of the millennial generation.
“It also reflects a broader dynamic that is occurring in countless communities throughout the Rust Belt,” he said.
The cast of “Mr. Wheeler’s” includes Daniel Navabi, Stefon Funderburke, Nathan Wagner, Mia Colon, Keith Stepanic, Nicolas Wix, Destinee Thompson and Shanon Coleman.
Todd Dicken is the scenic designer; Angelique Tanner is lighting designer; Chuck Kettering is production manager; Katherine N. Garlick is costume designer; Wendy Akers is costume shop supervisor; and Johnny Pecano is sound designer.