Playwright: Eli Newell
At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-338-2177, or RavenTheatre.com; $25-$30. Runs through: Dec. 22
Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story is a charming take on a Christmas miracle, where everyone with the holiday blues can find an answer at the Yule Connection hotline, including the volunteer call-takers themselves. It is not spoiling the ending that things come out merry and bright in director/playwright Eli Newell's tale of lonely people at Christmas, but what intrigues are the bits of reality that seep through the cheer and comedy at play.
Set in 1983 during an arctic Chicago winter, Cold Town/Hotline revolves around a group of volunteers spending the days leading up to the New Year taking calls and talking down those who have little to look forward to during the holidays. The hotline's organizer, Sheila ( Robin Margolis ), is going through her own troubles, as she divorces the husband who made the hotline famous on television. Betty ( Jeanne T. Arrigo ), her second-in-command, debates the value of racking up call numbers and only using scripts to talk to callers with longtime volunteer Larry ( Dennis Garcia ), while newcomers Annie ( Caroline Chu ) and Bruce ( Sam Linda ) adjust to Sheila's strict protocols. But when a surprise visitor arrives at the hotline asking for help, these volunteers must figure out the best way to help their visitor and themselves.
Newell builds intricate comedic and character-based business between his ensemble, which delights the audience as their eyes move from one end of the call room office to the other. Linda is particularly adept at capturing college student Bruce's weird nervous energy, and how Chi and Arrigo work to calm him down provides lots of chuckles. The surprise visitorwhom I don't want to discuss in detail, lest I give the game awayis given latitude to build a character in a few short minutes, and Newell's organic work with that actor shines through. If his script veers away from darkening the conflict between workers too much, maybe that's for the best. The play is about togetherness, so reveling in those moments, even when darkness leaks through, is definitely the whole point.
If you are in the mood for a holiday story that allows space for some of the dashed expectations and hard truths that Christmas can dredge up, check out Cold Town/Hotline. It is a fun journey with an ensemble that clearly enjoys one another's company during the long winter months.