Playwright: Will Kern. At: Profiles Theatre Main Stage (fka the Old Speakeasy), 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-549-1815; www.profilestheatre.org; $35-$49. Runs through: Dec. 23
When asked to name an unsurpassably perfect show, the answer is most likely one seen decades earlier. It's only human to recall ephemeral events in exaggerated terms of individual response. That said, theatergoers who have the legendary Famous Door production of Hellcab etched permanently into their memories (like me) are advised to beware of nostalgia-fueled distortions when viewing it 20 years later.
The resiliency of Will Kern's internationally produced urban odyssey lies in its recognition of the humble taxicab driver as more than simply a hired chauffeur. The intimacy engendered within the confines of his automobile domain (in this case, a former Flash sedan, to judge by its exterior) may require him, at various times, to act as surrogate priest, paramedic, psychologist, paramour, mechanic, midwife, guard, guide and all-purpose hand-holder. On this Christmas Eve, our immigrant cabbie (only four months on the job) will find himself thrust into all these services, whether he's prepared to assume them or not.
In 2012, you won't hear chuckles in recognition of long-gone neighborhood landmarks like Uptown's Wooden Nickel lounge or Lakeview's Pillar of Fire Evangelical church. Passengers now include a disabled social worker, a cross-dressing chippie (played sensitively by Aaron Holland) and a caroling accordionist. The Old Speakeasy theater's stage makes for longer entrances and exits. Oh, yes, and instead of a seven-member ensemble invoking various personalities in quick-change succession, director Darrell W. Cox has decreed that every character be played by a different actor, bringing the personnel count to a staggering 34 troupers, no more than four of whom are ever onstage at the same time.
Kern's instruction to pace the action at "breakneck" speed, coupled by the adrenal contact-high endemic to crowded greenrooms, inevitably engenders rehearsals more focused on traffic control than character analysis. By opening night, some players had grasped the core of their persona, while others need a few more days to explore the backstories of their snapshot portrayals, and Konstantin Khrustov's driver still has yet to find expressive resources beyond his boyish grin and tremulous voice. Future playgoers may also expect increasingly nuanced performances all around, as well as greater attention to thematic progression.
The premiere production of Hellcab had 10 yearsfrom 1992 to 2002to become the history-making experience we remember so reverently. This Profiles Theatre 20th-anniversary revival is well on its way to matching its record. See for yourself how it grows.