If you’re after a bit of holiday cheer that steers clear of the seasonal onslaught of elves, reindeer, Santas, and Scrooges, consider a spin with Hellcab. Formerly known as Hellcab Does Christmas, Will Kern’s alternately bleak and heartwarming drama delivers a disarmingly up-close, almost anthropological, view of the agonies and ecstasies found on Chicago’s streets.
Directed by Darrell W. Cox, Hellcab is a supersized remount of a show that had an astounding decade-long run (1992–2002) at the late Famous Door Theatre. During its former life, the Hellcab was a skeletal six actor double- and triple-cast; today, the revamped production boasts a whopping 34-person ensemble. It’s not only a logistically ambitious feat—the multi-ethnic ensemble delivers an impressive spectrum of Chicago.
In the opening moments of the 80-minute, Christmas Eve-set piece, the audience can all but feel the soul-crushing cold as the driver (Konstantin Khrustov) wages war against frozen door locks and howling winds. The cabbie’s day doesn’t get much better from there as he deals with coked up motormouths, obnoxious New Yorkers visiting for the weekend, racists, bitchy suburban sisters, lascivious lawyers, and one truly scary, monosyllabic black-clad specter who looks like the satanic brother of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Kern’s attention to detail gives each character a finely etched authenticity—he was clearly paying attention during his days behind a cab wheel.
Between the revelers having loud, sloppy sex en route to the Days Inn and the drunken cougar who creepily insists he call her “Sugar Mama,” the everyman behind the wheel struggles to believe that humankind is not just one giant cesspool of inherently selfish nut jobs. Much to the play’s credit, that struggle is never actually verbalized or overtly articulated. It’s just there, as the familiar daily battle.
From Halsted and 97th to the Truman College campus, Hellcab plays out on Shaun Renfro’s marvelously grimy world of graffiti and garbage. Take Profiles’ ride in it and you’ll never take your cabbie for granted again.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theater critic.
Photograph: Michael Brosilow