We usually think of taxicab drivers as young men, but a quick survey of Chicago's fleets also reveals a number of gray-haired drivers determined to "wear out, not rust out" their retirement years. Author Will Kern never specified the age of the nameless pilot helming the lone vehicle in Hellcab—originally titled Hellcab Does Christmas at its premiere for the now-dissolved Famous Door Company in 1992, before adopting a year-round run. Nearly ten years, actually, during which the trademark yellow sedan was shoehorned through entrances to three theaters and over two dozen actors took their turn as its pilot.
The chauffeur in Profiles' 2013 production who steers his mobile refuge through the uneasy revels of an urban Christmas Eve is played by Paul Dillon, the actor who created the role over two decades ago, going on to repeat it for the west coast premiere at Los Angeles' Tamarind Theatre and at the Dublin Theatre Festival, along with a film version, dubbed Chicago Cab, as well as a special one-night reunion performance at the long-shuttered Ivanhoe Theater featuring the nearly fifty cast members listing it on their resume.
The production currently occupying the Profiles Theatre Main Stage space is Dillon's sixth ride in the cab. The craggy features facilitating his Hollywood career portraying assorted thugs and villains has weathered significantly, but has lost none of its animation, nor has the twinkle in his blue eyes dimmed.
Hellcab has enjoyed successful productions in locations where taxicabs are virtually nonexistent, but Dillon rejects the notion that playgoers unfamiliar with taxi service, as we know it, will be puzzled by the nuances of the driver-passenger dynamic. For Chicagoans like those who nod in recognition of the addresses mentioned in the script, however, he concedes, "if it sharpens their palate, I'm happy"
Hellcab has been staged almost exclusively in small rooms, but its present quarters puts spectators closer to the action than any to date. "The Main Stage compares very favorably to Famous Door's Lakeview Hull House space, in that the cab has audience on three sides," observes Dillon, "Part of the play's pleasure is observing it from widely varied perspectives—front seat vs. back seat, or inside vs. outside—and a close-up view makes each individual scene easier for everyone."
In the original production, the cab's thirty-four passengers were portrayed by a seven-actor ensemble, but [Profiles director] Darrell Cox chose to cast a different person in each role, some reflecting characterizations not seen previously (a blind man, for example, or a cross-dresser). What's it like working with such a circus? "The dedication of this cast is lovely and fierce! Everyone has chops!" Dillon exults, "I am honored to be here with them!"
Clues in the script point to the driver being new to his job and the city. At one point, he mentions his home in Rockford, but the propensity of his fellow cabbies (and customers) to offer him advice, solicited or not, likewise hints at his youth. How has Dillon's own life experience affected his approach to the role?
"One of youth's graces is its resiliency—the expectation that if we fall, we get up. When we reach fifty-three [my age], we become aware that we don't always get up again, and that maybe there isn't comfort ahead waiting for us. That's the background for the compassion—and the laughter—in Kern's story. When we talked about the play, Darrell was very explicit about this—that, though it might be unusual for a man of my years to drive this cab, on this day, there is also merit in the effort to do so."
Hellcab runs at the Profiles Theatre Main Stage through January 12.
Mary Shen Barnidge