The set is an old taxi. That’s all. An old Checker taxi, number 4538, with an Illinois license plate. The top is removed and its back wheels are on blocks. But the headlights and turn signals work.
Written by Will Kern and directed by Sommer Austin, Hellcab, a Chicago holiday classic, is being staged at the Den Theatre by the Agency Theater Collective. The stories are drawn from Kern’s experiences as a Chicago cab driver.
Hellcab takes place in that taxi on a cold late December day and night in 1992. The cab driver (nameless) is played by Rusty Schwimmer, who encounters an array of mankind’s flaws, frailties and fantasies through the course of her long day. With luck, she’ll earn enough to pay her rent and buy groceries—and even get a nice tip now and then.
It’s a slice of Chicago life and Schwimmer does a fine job as the cab driver. She doesn’t have much room for emoting in her static role, but she uses facial expressions to their maximum effect as she reacts to her passengers’ stories and antics with humor, frustration, sorrow and anger. I wish Austin would choreograph the rest of the cast with more animation. I’ve seen Hellcab several times and this version comes up a little short in the energy category.
The range of taxi humanity includes a very pregnant woman (Gabrielle Gulledge) on the way to the hospital with her husband (Reginald Robinson); and Shalita (Delysa Richards) and her brutal boyfriend (George Ellzey Jr.). Two obnoxious New York drunks (Sean Higgins and Jack Schultz) insult everything about Chicago, including shouting out the cab window, “Cubs Suck!” A man performs a sex act on a woman (Richards and Harsh J. Gagoomal) on the way to the Days Inn on Diversey.
Late in the evening, a distraught woman (Manuela Rentea) gets in the cab and asks to go home. She tells the driver that she’s been raped and the police didn’t do anything or take her to the hospital. The driver wants to help her but is unable to do anything but take her to her destination. The final passenger, a well-dressed man (Robinson), asks to be taken to a diner to pick up some food and then be taken back to his office; he’s an architect and has a long night of work ahead. Their ride results in an exchange of family stories, of holiday grieving about lost ones, and puts a warm human wrap on Hellcab.
One of the pleasures of Hellcab is the litany of Chicago lore and locations, past and present, that color every interaction. A ride to Bridgeport, a diner at Melrose and Broadway, Mercy Hospital, the Wooden Nickel Lounge at Wilson and Broadway. And “how about those Bulls?”
Hellcab was first produced in 1992 as a late-night show by the now defunct Famous Door Theatre with the great Larry Neumann Jr. as the cab driver. It had a nine-year run. Will Kern was a member of the Famous Door ensemble at the time (and full disclosure, I was a member of the Famous Door board of directors for about six years until the theater folded in 2005). Kern wrote the screenplay for the Hellcab film, also known as Chicago Cab.
Hellcab by the Agency Theater Collective runs 90 minutes with no intermission. You can see it through December 17 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Performances are Thursday-Sunday and tickets are pay what you can, with $5-$30 suggested. Buy tickets online or call 773-697-3830.
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Correction. Paul Dillon was the first actor to portray the cab driver in Famous Door’s 1992 premiere. Larry Neumann and other actors played the role later. See Mary Shen Barnidge’s article for some of the history of Hellcab.