Written by Will Kern
Directed by Darrell W. Cox
At The Main Stage (Profiles Theatre)
‘Hell’ is other people…in a cab.
Everyone has one if you live in Chicago (or any big city) long enough. That story of the friendly taxi cab driver who talked your ear off while narrowly avoiding an accident every few seconds or so. Maybe they wanted to rant about politics, or the weather, or—as one friend experienced—maybe they want to sell you a painting. Every new ride can be a portal to a strange adventure, though with the advent of cell phones, many cabbies have taken to talking endlessly to someone else rather than engage with their passengers while they in turn check email and make their own calls en route.
Despite that trend, taxis remain unique. Unlike other service industries—waiters, bellhops, flight attendants, etc that have been narrative fodder for exploring the human condition—taxis are an urban portrait of forced intimacy. For a few miles, you are in a small space with a stranger, and as Taxicab Confessions (which began just a few years after Hellcab’s debut) made it clear, some people take that opportunity to say or do some fairly bizarre things. Given that you’ll never see this person again, the cabbie can and does become a priest, a therapist, a witness, a confidant to so many small events and ideas in a way that we rarely can be with the intimates in our own lives. Sometimes they even return the favor.
What Will Kern has done so brilliantly with Hellcab is to distill those moments into a single ‘day in the life’ of one hapless, naive Chicago cab driver on a blustery cold Christmas Eve. Though ostensibly the star is Paul Dillon, who originated the role in 1992, the other star is the character (and characters) of the city itself. More to the point, it’s the existential drama that plays out over the multitude of fares he picks up. More a free verse poem than standard dramedy arc, Hellcab flickers briskly through the lives of the many colorful travelers, their tragedies and triumphs, their banal and their profound. Everything feels real and with good reason. According to the notes, 85% of the stories are true and happened to Kern, while 15% are based on secondhand accounts.
From a first fare of overly devout Christians discussing proper child punishment strategies to a woman in labor to some coked-out gangbangers, he will see the best and worst and everything in between while struggling with his own obligations to the people who inhabit his cab. Should he run after a girl to tell her the guy she just went on a date with is a jerk? Give dating advice to the vociferously unhappy? Have sex with a woman who wants to be called “sugar mama”? This cavalcade will challenge his assumptions and force reflection on how much we owe, to borrow a phrase from another Christmas classic, our “fellow-travelers to the grave.” They inadvertently become for him more than just “another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Originally, Hellcab had just a few actors playing the various passenger roles. In his updated take (a remount of last year’s production), director Cox has taken a far more daring approach by bringing in 34 distinct actors, some who inhabit the stage for only a few minutes. It gives the entirety a scale appropriate to its theme. They whisk away just as we were beginning to love them, hate them, empathize with them, and they won’t be back in any form. Some are great actors I’ve seen before but many were unknown to me. It’s a microcosm of life itself. Our minds reel as we witness the alternately funny or frightening amidst the many voices.
Initially I had expected the role of the Driver to convey a certain world-weariness, perhaps a grizzled sardonic view, maybe even a shaman dolling wisdom —the standards for the stereotype. What I could not have expected was Kern’s heartfelt and touching take on a single man from Rockford just settling into a job he didn’t want because nothing else was there. Dillon plays it just every-so-slightly over the top, inhabiting the farce not at all far removed from the reality. Looking like John Malkovich’s brother, his fish-out-of-water journey through alienation, fear, loneliness, self-loathing and moral imperative becomes a miniature epic. A minor hero’s journey through the urban jungle, unable to inhabit a fully misanthropic detachment to his charges. Dillon’s castmates are equally pithy in all their brevity, be it drunk or high, traumatized or traumatizing, crass or kind.
Hellcab was famously extended from its original twelve-performances to become one of Chicago’s longest running at 9 years. Over the years it’s taken many forms both here and around the world to much acclaim (though humorously the fares are still set at their 1992 rates). Just the other day I was discussing the advent of self-driving cars with a friendly cab driver, and how that might revolutionize his trade by negating the very need for a cab driver some day. Stepping out of Hellcab, I felt a tinge of regret that this is perhaps destined to be a vanishing industry. Thankfully, Profiles is keeping the spirit alive, and for about the fare of a cab to O’Hare, you can take this rewarding journey too.
Date Reviewed: November 13, 2013
At The Main Stage, 4147 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60614, call 773.549.1815, tickets $35-40 (Students and senior citizens receive $5 discount. Group rates available), Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 5pm & 8pm, Sundays 7pm, running time is 80 minutes, through January 12.