Rob Zellers might be a sophomore playwright, but he long ago graduated from the informal classroom he honors in Harry's Friendly Service, premiering this week at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Zellers' second full-length play takes place in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1977. The titular automobile service station is the gathering place for characters weathering the swift and utter collapse of that town's all-important steel industry.
Youngstown is Zellers' hometown. He left years ago, first to teach high school and coach sports in Columbus, Ohio. Zellers later moved to Pittsburgh, and in 1988 furthered a lifelong interest in theater by becoming "the oldest intern they ever had" at the Public. He was named the Public's education coordinator in 1992, and has since overseen programs -- from summer camps to the well-known Shakespeare monologue contest -- that serve thousands of kids each year.
Zellers, who's 57 and lives in O'Hara Township, doesn't teach theater himself. In fact, he spent years absorbing the craft via behind-the-scenes observation of many dozens of productions before he even tried playwriting. More playwrights should be so lucky with their debuts: The Chief, a one-man show about Steelers patriarch Art Rooney Jr. that Zellers co-wrote with Gene Collier, premiered in 2003 and has been revived annually since.
But Harry's Friendly Service, as an ensemble work, harks more to Zellers' biggest influence: August Wilson, specifically the Public's 1989 staging of Fences. "I never knew plays could be that good," says Zellers. "It was flawed people ... and that's very attractive to me. Flawed people making their way."
Harry (played by Edward James Hyland) runs his gas station and takes bets on the side. While the story is mostly about his relationship with the now-grown daughter he gave up for adoption when she was 8, the subplot involves Harry's longtime friendship with a guy who's become the head of a big crime family.
The cast also includes Tressa Glover, Alex Coleman and Larry John Meyers. In rehearsal with director Ted Pappas, Zellers has been "paring down" the script. ("I'm wordy!" he admits, after a recent day of rehearsal.) But the play he worked on for three years can still move him. "Sometimes there's just tears," he says. "I'm an emotional guy."
Youngstown, where his 83-year-old mother still lives, stays with him, too. Early in the playwriting process, he says, he found himself writing stilted dialogue. "I thought, 'Oh my God, no, use your Youngstown language'" -- the slangy talk he heard growing up. "It helped me a lot"
As a young man, Zellers worked summer mill jobs. But the play honors the older men he knew -- mostly veterans of World War II, including his father, an attorney who sometimes represented labor unions. "The whole play is inspired by stories my dad told me," he says.
Three of the play's seven characters are men over 60, the sort of guys he considers his mentors. A younger character, played by Joel Ripka, is something of a stand-in for Zeller's father.
"I'm a sentimental fellow and I like to do tribute," says Zellers.
Harry's Friendly Service Thu., May 28-June 28. O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $15-50. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org