Hellcab @ The Den

4 Stars out of 4

Every November the holiday show season begins.  You have your Nutcrackers and Nutcracker adaptations,  many faithful renditions and adaptations of royalty free Dickens, your musical reviews and the occasional Hanukkah Goblins.  And then you have the darker side. Because for so many people the holidays are not lovely.  And is to those people that Will Kern’s classic play Hellcab turns.   The show is a quiet, darkly humorous and tragic microscopic look at one day in the life of a driver, and the script has held up remarkably well in the age of Uber. Premiered in 1992 the show was a late night hit at Famous Door for almost a decade, and was repeatedly revived by the notorious Profiles Theatre.  It is the kind of gritty, character driven , best up close in a black box genre of theatre that Chicago is known for.  Filmic in concept, it appears to borrow heavily from Jim Jarmusch’s iconic movie  Night On Earth of around the same era.  Kern’s version was filmed for a movie, Chicago Cab  in 1997 that featured a Who’s Who of Chicago actors.  The story is simple—a cabbie’s week before Christmas shift on a bitterly cold Chicago night.  Passengers range from the insane to the destitute, hopped up on crack or nearly delivering the baby in the cab. There is no grand conflict, no denouement at the end.  This is a snapshot of a life at the margin, and you leave the theatre thoughtful. Hellcab is a deep look into the lonely heart of life in the big city, and tomorrow will hold another day, and passengers with their stories, just like this one.  It is striking that the racism on view in 1992 is still as alive and crippling now as it was then.  Neither has the ubiquitous sexism changed.  One hopes that should this play continue its yearly appearance another 25 years, that those aspects will feel dated and of another time.

The reason the show is such a standard is because this is an experience that lets the audience rejoice in actors, even as you are musing on the story of these characters. It’s a paean to actors making specific choices to live particular lives for these possibly ordinary characters.  And it is a show that, if done well, will break your heart.  But you have to have a master artist when you cast the Cabbie, because most of the 70 minutes with no intermission production is that actor looking out over the hood of the cab and interacting with the passengers behind them. You have to feel the whole show in the visage of the cabbie. (Fun Fact: Agency Theater Collective here managed to find the ACTUAL cab used in to the movie and somehow got it up to the second floor theatre)  The cabbie has to live the whole experience going on behind them, staring at you in the audience in a tiny theatre where an actor can actually see every member of the audience.

Agency Theater Collective director Sommer Austin brilliantly chose well known character actor Rusty Schwimmer for this Cabbie, and having a woman in the age of #metoo adds a subtle level of vulnerability to the story. Schwimmer is no shrinking violet: when she loads the baseball bat into the front seat you are certain she intends to use it.

The action takes place in the early 90’s, before the Cubs have won, when people paid for cabs with cash, before texting, when people actually screamed at one another.  A woman cabbie in Chicago has to be extraordinarily strong and Schwimmer truthfully lives the tough and tender to draw you in and make you root for her—and scares your sox off when you think one of the passengers might do her harm.

Austin also has assembled a shape shifting ensemble that commits to creating distinct believable characters and breathes life into their moments. Standouts include Reginald Johnson, Jr and Delysa Richards and Marie Weigle.

In these extraordinary times it might be more fitting to sit in a theatre and contemplate the lives of persons struggling, just working to make ends meet, just getting by, then to gussy up and watch the sparkles and fake snow and faux Victorian splendor.  Hellcab’s passengers are the ones Dickens wanted ol Scrooge to see anyway.

The Agency Theatre Collective’s production of Hellcab has been extended through December 31, 2017.The shows plays Thursdays through Sundays at the Den Theatre1331 N Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.  For tickets and information go to www.wearetheagency.org or call (773) 490-5265. Or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/hellcab/9545/