Russell Street Theater
116 N Russell, 306-0870
Through Aug 12

The first thing the viewer notices about Theatre Vertigo's production of Will Kern's Hellcab is just how unhellish it is. With a title like Hellcab, one expects something dark, scary, and unnerving. Instead, one finds a play that is gentle, mushy in the middle, even spiritual.

The play follows the shift of a nameless cabbie on a Thursday that is also Christmas Eve. Played by Keith Cable, he is father confessor, friendly neighborhood bartender, and male stripper all rolled into one. When passengers hop into his car, he doesn't know if they are going to try to convert him to Christianity or come on to him. In the course of the day and night, he sees drug deals, helps a rape victim, tries to intervene in a misguided romance, and rushes a pregnant woman to the hospital. You soon learn why Chicago is called the Windy City: these people just won't stop talking.

Hellcab was a good choice for Theatre Vertigo. The set is simple: a bare stage with the skeleton of a cab on it: hood, steering wheel, seats. And cabs have become something of a cultural, petri dish: HBO's Taxi Cab Confessions and Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth are only two recent examples. The producers acknowledge this cultural marbling by opening with the taped pre-show sounds of a mythical all-cab music radio station that plays everything from Travis Bickle's ramblings to the tune from Taxi.

Hellcab's also a good choice because the play is lively, and the eight other actors besides Cable each play three to five parts, deriving a lot of experience out of a relatively short play (it lasts about 90 minutes). The most impressive cast member is Andrea White, who plays a lawyer just as brilliantly and naturally as she can do a cab company dispatcher. She handles her lines with such authenticity that when she is on stage one really feels as if they're in that cab. She is an actorial role model, and our city's other actors should rush to the Russell Street Theater to observe what her troupe members enjoy each performance.

Sheer company poverty is the foundation of the one criticism I have. I wish they had done more with lights and sound. Here was an opportunity to create a transition of day to night with subtle lighting effects, and conjure the illusion of traffic with lighting effects. And the play could have benefited from a backdrop of car traffic and dispatcher mumbling to augment the eeriness of night and the city. But while some local production companies are awash in public and private funds for their carnival freaks and peep shows, honest companies such as Theatre Vertigo struggle along. Under the circumstances, they have done the best with the means at hand.