The reason for the popularity of Hellcab, Will Kern’s evening-length one-act set in a Chicago taxicab right before Christmas, has long eluded me. Famous Door’s original 1992 production, initially slated for 12 performances, ran for ten years, a nearly unheard-of feat for an off-Loop show. In the middle of that streak, Chicago’s New Crime Productions turned it into a movie, featuring Gillian Anderson, John Cusack, and Julianne Moore, no less. This millennium, Profiles Theatre staged it for four consecutive holiday seasons, and now the Agency Theater Collective offers its second annual take on the seemingly indefatigable piece, this time with a female cabdriver.
Regendering the cabbie makes for good promotional copy (“the first ever female-led production”) but leaves the script’s fundamental flaws unaddressed. Beyond its halting, underdeveloped scenic structure—most of the cab rides end just as something of consequence arises—the whole affair reifies a certain bourgeois privilege: it’s somehow the cabdriver’s “hell” to drive rude, drunk, creepy, belligerent, racist, distressed, and/or devoutly religious people a few blocks for money (tell that to the young female passenger with the hatefully abusive boyfriend, or the one who was just raped). Worse, the script asks us to accept unquestioningly the cabbie’s belief she’s in dangerous territory driving anywhere on the south side except Bridgeport.
Director Cordie Nelson’s underpaced production features a number of affecting performances, a real cab center stage, and a truly moving finale. But the route to that climax is a dispiriting slog. v