Youngstown restaurant reopens on YSU stage

Boardman native Rob Zellers’ play “Mr. Wheeler’s” will have its world premiere Friday at Youngstown State University.

Zellers hopes to be in attendance.

The playwright, a 1970 Boardman High School graduate who lives in the Pittsburgh area, had been involved with rehearsals and coming into Youngstown at least once a week until a bad case of the flu landed him in the hospital on Friday. He was still hospitalized on Monday but was well enough to talk about the show.

“I hope I’m well enough to be there,” he said. “I really want to come in for the dress rehearsal. I haven’t seen the costumes yet. I haven’t heard the sound cues yet. Some of the tech I missed this past week I’m anxious to see.

“I’m always interested to see the actors. Playwrights typically love actors. We love to see what they can do, and you don’t really know what they can do until you have an audience. You get some of the most wonderful surprises when they take the stage and grab it.”

This is the second time one of Zellers’ plays has been staged at YSU. Youngstown Playhouse used the university’s Ford Theater to stage “Harry’s Friendly Service,” which was set at the Youngstown auto body shop in the mid-1970s. Matthew Mazuroski, chair of YSU’s department of theater and dance, played Harry in that play and is directing “Mr. Wheeler’s,” which will be staged in Bliss Hall’s Spotlight Theater.

“I could tell Matthew was a good director from working with him as an actor,” Zellers said. “You can tell in rehearsal day after day.”

“Mr Wheeler’s” is set in a Youngstown fast food restaurant in 2005 and focuses on the young crew that works the breakfast shift. When they find a paper bag filled with money in the basement of the restaurant, it triggers a series of unexpected consequences that could have an impact on their futures.

Zellers said it was a place, not the plot that initially inspired him. The title of the play comes from a pair of restaurants that used to exist on the south side of Youngstown that Zellers remembers visiting when he was growing up.

“What’s interesting for me is to see a crappy, rundown gas station, to see the kitchen of a fast food restaurant, an interesting setting that sort of spikes an interest,” he said. “I start thinking, putting people in those settings.”

The characters he put in that world that are based on himself and on people he’s known, particularly the young people he met as the education director for 28 years at Pittsburgh Public Theater and as a high school teacher before that.

“There’s a certain kind of young person who, regardless of how they’re performing in class, you just knew they had the drive and the desire and the stamina that they were going to lift themselves up and be successful people,” Zellers said. “Certain people have that gene, I guess.

“In fast food, you have these young people working these jobs, some are still in high school, some just out. The thing I’ve noticed is, while a lot of people think of those as (rotten) jobs, they don’t think of them that way. They’re an important step on the way to somewhere. Wouldn’t it be fun setting this in city like Youngstown, where the city itself and the school system has a lot of challenges. Let’s add to the challenges and see how your set of kids do, what this feisty, scrappy teen family can do against some really bad circumstances.”

The cast includes Daniel Navabi, Stefon Funderburke, Nathan Wagner, Mia Colon, Keith Stepanic, Nicolas Wix, Destinee Thompson and Shanon Coleman.

Zellers makes his young characters struggle with these challenges with little or no adult support.

“All of the adults in this play are not very great role models,” he said. ‘The manager comes up with the wrong advice every single step of the way.”

There have been a couple of staged readings of “Mr. Wheeler’s” in the Pittsburgh area, but this is the first full-scale production, and the script has changed some in dealing with the realities of making it work on stage.

“You need to understand the role of the playwright, the role of the director and the role of the actors,” he said. “What are the roles here? They’re not etched in stone. They overflow a little into each other’s territory.”

The actors suggested some dialogue changes when they felt the terminology was too “old-fashioned,” and Zellers was able to provide insight about the characters to the actors.

“I was really happy to be around when the young actors were searching, like even professional actors do, to develop who they were. Who is this character? I was there to be able to sit quietly with individual actors, ask them questions to help them arrive at who the characters were.”