This is the story of a Chicago theater Christmas miracle. It’s also the story of how the Agency Theater Collective got the cab for its production of Hellcab, Will Kern’s play about a cabbie on Christmas Eve.
“Finding that car was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Agency company manager Tim Touhy.
The search started last year when Sommer Austin signed on to direct the Agency’s 2017 production of Hellcab. Austin wasn’t budging on vehicular veracity. “It had to be a cab you’d see on the streets in the early 1990s,” she says, “so a Chevy Caprice from either the late 1980s or early 1990s. With a meter. And blinkers.”
Austin wandered salvage yards and scoured Facebook Marketplace. Finally, during a long jag of insomniac Web surfing, she struck gold, albeit in the form of a rusting chassis on dubious tires. There on a lot in Janesville, Wisconsin—roughly 110 miles northwest of Chicago—was the cab.
“It was perfect,” Austin says. Well, almost. It wasn’t drivable. It smelled like something—perhaps many somethings—had died in it. And the asking price was $2,000—way over budget for the tiny Agency. Touhy is still miffed about that. “They wouldn’t move,” he says. “Even when I explained we were a nonprofit.”
But it wasn’t just any cab. It was the cab from the 1998 movie version of Hellcab, called Chicago Cab. Chicago Cab played in just two theaters, but it featured a host of famous Chicagoans in their (mostly) pre- famous days: Michael Shannon (Crack Head), Tracy Letts (Sports Fan), Laurie Metcalf (Female Ad Exec), and John C. Reilly (Steve).
The Agency didn’t do any fund-raising specifically for the cab, Touhy says. The show’s $20,000 budget—like that of the rest of the Agency season—comes from small grants, individual donations, and ticket sales. “We knew we’d be able to use it again this year,” Touhy says of the cab. “It was a lot, but we were going to do Hellcab again, so at least it wasn’t $2,000 for something we’d only use once.”
Then there was the problem of getting the cab’s massive metal hulk up two narrow stairways and through three narrower doors onto the Den Theatre’s postage-stamp second-floor stage. (This year, the Agency’s Hellcab is at the larger Raven Theatre.)
“We had no idea how it’d work,” Touhy says. “It was a leap of faith.”
The leap led him to a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who said an auto-body shop in Niles might be willing to advise how to get a full-size sedan into the theater space. Enter Carol Himmel, director of the German-American Children’s Choir, longtime patron of the arts, and owner of Erich’s Lehigh Auto Body. “We like to help when we can, and these guys definitely needed help,” Himmel says. “And they were so sweet the way they asked.”
Himmel and her cohorts at Erich’s literally cut the car in half, dismantled the halves, and hauled the pieces into the Den. When the 2017 show closed, they helped break it into parts again and moved it into storage, where it sat until this year’s production rolled around.
For Touhy, the car is a metaphor.
“That whole cab is kind of like what 90 percent of the work is for storefront nonprofits. We take on these challenges without knowing how they’ll work. Art is always a leap of faith. And a lot of work that most people won’t see.” v