‘Mr. Wheeler’s’ strong ensemble excels at achieving cohesiveness

By Eric McCrea


Youngstown State University played host to the world premiere performance of Youngstown native Rob Zeller’s latest play, “Mr. Wheeler’s.”

Set in the now-closed South Side Mr. Wheeler’s in 2005, the story focuses on the young staff members as they make it through their shifts. Doug, played by Keith Stepanic, finds a bag of money in the basement, and tells the not-quite assistant manager Ed (Nic Wix). Before the young co-workers have a chance to mentally spend it, Cherelle, played by Destinee Thompson, demands that they return it and leave it alone.

As the workday grinds on, they contemplate their presents and futures, never too far from the topic of Mr. Wheeler’s declining sales. As the neighborhood violence encroaches, it becomes clear that whoever is behind the mysterious basement money is putting everyone’s lives at risk.

Stepanic was fantastic as the ceaselessly optimistic Doug. His absence in much of the second act was noticeable.

The character of Ed seemed anachronistic at times, like a ’50s soda-shop archetype stuck in a class of an ’05 student, but Wix was able to make it work. He was well-intentioned, but flawed, with palpable leading-man quality.

Thompson struggled with some of the bland dialogue that is inherent in the opening scenes of most plays, but once the pace picked up and her character had more substance, she excelled.

Mia Colon played Sasha, the tough girl in a troubled relationship. Colon has shown great skill as a character actress in the past, and this time she proved she can handle reality and drama with just as much talent.

Nathan Wagner was transformative as Matty, the manager and oldest character. His youth was no hindrance in his look or performance.

Shanon Coleman delivered a remarkably nuanced and subtle portrayal of Ken-yatta. The script takes the character to creative places, and Coleman was spot-on.

Stefon Funderburke’s role of Tommy comes nowhere near as cool as the other characters say he is, but the reason makes it work. He was able to retroactively show a man dealing with a situation bigger than himself.

Individually, the characters don’t hold much interest, but this play revolves around a strong ensemble. The cast was remarkable at achieving cohesiveness. In some ways, they melted more into their characters when they were dealing with the everyday things at work than when they discussed their separate issues.

“Mr. Wheeler’s” doesn’t reference as many Youngstown locales as some of Zellers’ other works, and a few of the familiarities he included weren’t exactly things teenagers talked about in 2005.

The main story lives mostly at the beginning and the end of the play, thinning out in the middle, but leaving ample time for character development. There’s a sudden plot shift at the end that comes out of left field and isn’t addressed afterward, seeming to only serve as a bookend to the persistent “Our Town” metaphor.

Zellers was able to end the show capturing the heart of the Youngstown Renaissance; a new generation, unwilling to relinquish hope, enacting the change that we can achieve when we work together, building a life amongst the ruins.

“Mr. Wheeler’s” can be seen at the Spotlight Theater in YSU’s Bliss Hall on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and today and next Sunday at 2 p.m. To reserve tickets, call 330-941-3105 or go to www.ysu.tix.com.

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