Mr. Wheeler’s: Gritty and Wonderful

By Mark Mangie – Tonight, I was fortunate to attend the premier of Youngstown native Rob Zellers’ new play, Mr. Wheeler’s.   For those of you who don’t know his history, Mr. Zellers has had an outstanding career in theater. Director of Education for the Pittsburgh Public Theater for many years, his works have been produced at universities and theaters across the country. Although Youngstown is the setting for several of his plays, his plays are not about Youngstown.   There are references to the Youngstown area, but the plays center around universal themes that have exhibited themselves in unique ways across the broad swath of America referred to as the Rust Belt.

Mr. Wheeler’s is no exception.  Performed by students at Youngstown State’s Spotlight Theater, don’t go expecting a walk down memory lane to the Mr. Wheeler’s we grew up with.  It’s 2005 and Mr. Wheeler’s is in decline as the neighborhood around it is taken over by gang-bangers.  Inside the safety of the restaurant, a young staff tries to keep the restaurant alive along with their personal dreams…and more importantly…their jobs. Each faces his/her own crisis of conscience as they try to find a path off the bottom rung of the ladder.  Personal compromise between ideals and reality is hard to achieve as the ugliness around them forces itself into the center of the old, decrepit restaurant as well as their lives.

This play is not for everyone.  It is not a feel-good romp through Youngstown’s past.  The young, rock-solid cast belies the grittiness of the subject matter.  Profanity and violence are prominent throughout by necessity.  The story is a little tough to get into because story line is harsh.  But midway through the first act you start to gain interest in the characters, and by the end of the first act you are totally hooked.

The second act is suspenseful, action packed and filled with surprises.  One criticism…the ending is somewhat disjointed and seems thrown together.  Hopefully Mr. Zellers can tighten it up a bit in an otherwise stellar piece of theater.  That is how plays are honed because it is in performance you can see and correct the flaws.

The Youngstown State University College of Creative Arts and Communication does an outstanding job of nurturing and promoting local talent both from within and without the university itself.  This production was graciously underwritten by Jack Scott and Julie Michael Smith…and well worth their investment.  If you love theater and especially the “process” of theater…as well as a good story and night of talented entertainment…Mr. Wheeler’s is a great night out.  Bliss Hall / Spotlight Theater / February 16 – 25.