I first read the script for “Mr. Wheeler’s” three years ago, shortly after playwright Rob Zellers finished it.
The play, which is set in Youngstown, finally got its stage premiere last week, and after seeing it, I gained a new appreciation for Youngstown State University Theater, which brought it to life. More on that later.
Zellers lives in Pittsburgh, but he grew up in Boardman, and he loves to tell stories of his hometown in his plays. Long time Youngstowners will remember that Mr. Wheeler’s was an eatery with a couple of locations on the South Side. Zellers visited it often as a child.
The last Mr. Wheeler’s location closed years ago.
Folks who remember the eateries and are expecting the play to be a trip down memory lane will be disappointed.
That’’s because “Mr. Wheeler’s” isn’t about an eatery. It’s about the struggles young people face in trying to advance in a city that is down on its luck.
The play is set in an alternate reality: the year is 2005, and Mr. Wheeler’s has expanded into a chain with modern and thriving suburban locations, while hanging on to the struggling original ones, which are in neighborhoods that have turned violent and forlorn.
It is in one of those inner-city shops where the play is set.
There are a few mentions of “the way things used to be” in the Youngstown-centric script. But that’s the extent of its nostalgia. Plus, all of the characters are in their teens or 20s, which gives the play a contemporary feel.
Those characters are the point of this column.
When I first read the script, years before the play would ever be performed on a stage, I couldn’t quite grasp what the characters would be like in real life. I also had a hard time envisioning how the dialog would sound when spoken, and even more so, the movement of the actors. Other nuances also eluded me: unspoken words, body language, emphasis in speech, facial expressions.
But turning a script into a play is something that falls on the shoulders of the director and the cast – a task made more challenging when the play has never been done before.
Thanks to director Matthew Mazuroski and the YSU actors — Keith Stepanic, Nic Wix, Destinee Thompson, Mia Colon, Shanon Coleman, Nathan Wagner and Stefon Funderburke — the characters in “Mr. Wheeler’s” became real personalities.
The director and cast made the words on paper come to life in ways I never could imagine. They captured the rough camaraderie they shared, which doesn’t come through when you’re just reading lines on a page.
The character that most surprised me was Matty, the restaurant manager. Wagner portrayed him as a slovenly, cynical schemer who is a bit of a shlub. I never would have pictured him that way, but it just worked perfectly.
“Mr. Wheeler’s” will continue this weekend in Spotlight Theater, on the lower level of Bliss Hall, which is on Wick Avenue, next to McDonough Museum.
Tickets are $16 ($8 for non-YSU students and senior citizens); call the box office at 330-941-3105 or go to ysu.tix.com.
The play includes adult language and situations.
YOUNGSTOWN NATIVE LEAVES MUSICAL LEGACY
Youngstown native Beebe Freitas died last week at age 79 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she lived since 1966. She was a well-known pianist, church organist, vocal coach and music educator, and also the head of music for Hawaii Opera Theatre.
Freitas was born Beatrice Pauline Botty in 1938 in Youngstown. Her father was pastor of the Hungarian United Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, and her mother was dean of women and head of the sociology department at Youngstown State University and an attorney.
She graduated from South High School and Oberlin College, and performed with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra in 1955-56, starting a music career that included a performance as soloist with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator.