Friday December 15th 2017

“Hellcab” reviewed by Jeffrey Leibham

The Agency Theater Collective, a company that tends to focus on new or rarely produced plays, is currently presenting the return of the Chicago classic “Hellcab.” Written in 1992 by Will Kern, the long-running hit show concerns a single day in the life of a Chicago cab driver. Under the direction of Sommer Austin, who is the co-founder and Managing Director of The Agency Theater Collective, the work is presented entirely in its original format.  The only major change comes in the casting of the lead role. In all previous productions of “Hellcab” the cab driver has been played by a male actor. Here, in a refreshing and ultimately rewarding twist, we have the extremely talented and engaging female actor Rusty Schwimmer who lovingly portrays the lonely and isolated cab driver.

For the most part, the script has held up pretty well. While certain phrases may have become outdated and some references distorted (especially in the sequence featuring two nasty and opinionated drunk sports fanatics from New York City who relish in belittling our fine city) – the fact that the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series title since 1908 is happily ancient history now! The only element that does feel passe is the way that the South side of Chicago is represented. One would like to think that attitudes have shifted in the last 25 years regarding one’s personal safety in certain neighborhoods that lie south of Roosevelt Avenue.

Presented as a series of fares that the cab driver picks up during the course of a frigid and snowy December 21st, “Hellcab” is essentially a showcase for many actors who get the opportunity to play multiple roles. Ms Schwimmer, who seems to be putting in an 18 hour workday behind the wheel, also has several short monologues that she delivers directly to the audience. Kate Jacobsen has loads of fun in her two roles. First she is a professionally attired lawyer who travels to her South Loop condo and insists on being called “Sugar Mamma.” Later she appears as a drunk who is on her way to Wilson Avenue while professing her love for the cab driver because she reminds her of a sweetheart that she had in high school. Delysa Richards completely immerses herself in all three of her roles, so much so that you won’t believe it’s the same actor playing Shalita, an emotionally fragile and unstable woman doubting the fidelity of her boyfriend (George Ellzey, Jr.) as well as the spooky and menacing Scary. As Scary Ms. Richards has just a few lines but lives up to her character’s namesake, with a pleasant surprise at the end of the ride. Mr. Ellzey, Jr. also has a short but heartfelt scene as a Young Black Man who has a moral dilemma regarding a new car that he recently purchased. The audience roared with approval during the scene featuring Marie Weigle and Manuela Rentea as sisters who are constantly arguing, one of whom seems to be obsessed with serial killers. Ms. Rentea also appears very late in the show as a Distraught Woman, where Will Kern’s script veers into much darker territory. It is here that Ms. Schwimmer, as a female in a typically male-oriented workplace, brings a much different dimension to her frustration as she is unable to comfort or even help this woman. Also hilarious are Gabrielle Gulledge as a pregnant woman and Reginald Robinson, Jr. as the father-to-be as they rush to the hospital while in the midst of heavy labor pains and hoping that the baby doesn’t arrive while they are still in the taxi cab.

Speaking of the taxi cab, scenic designer Elyse Balogh has an actual, authentic Chevy sedan on stage. With the exception of a single lamp post with a holiday ribbon attached, the cab is the only set piece and sits proudly at center stage. For the benefit of sight lines, the cab has been deconstructed, but features working head lights as well as directional blinking lights. The doors are not attached to actual hinges, but merely sit atop moving wooden mini-horses. While functional they do not make any sound when closed. This robs a bit of the punch from certain scenes that would be enhanced by the sound of a heavy clunk a real car door makes as the actors dramatically leave the cab in a state of anger or disgust. Lighting designer Ellie Humphrys nicely modulates when the cab has pulled up to a red light or passes through a green one, while Connor Ciesil’s sound design evokes other traffic noises as well as busy cityscapes and pedestrian foot traffic too. Hailey Rakowiecki’s costumes are numerous and convey get details about many of these outrageous and zany characters.

You may find yourself wondering just where this crazy cab ride is going. Initially viewed as a series of meaningless vignettes that are randomly linked together, Will Kern’s script does contain some substance. The character of the cab driver remains a mystery throughout. We learn very few details about her yet end up hoping for nothing but the best for her and her uncertain future. In an age where more and more cabbies are disappearing due to the popularity of Uber and Lyft, “Hellcab” does illustrate the dangers that these drivers face on a daily basis. The conclusion wraps up the play as a brightly decorated Christmas package. In a very tender and moving scene, Ms. Schwimmer and Mr. Robinson, Jr. (both of whom turn in beautiful work during the course of the entire evening) truly shine radiantly. This moment is so human and proves why, at this time of year, this show should be enjoyed with loved ones, family and friends, in the true spirit of the holiday.


Thru – Dec 17, 2017

At The Den Theatre  1329 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago

Thursdays: 7:30pm
Fridays: 7:30pm
Saturdays: 7:30pm
Sundays: 3:00pm

Tickets range from $5- $30

Show Type: Comedy/Drama

Box Office: 773-697-3830

To see what others are saying, visit, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Hellcab”.

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