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Nine actors whose fall performances have us speed-dialing box offices

From left to right:

LINDA REITER  By now, playing hardened, delusional women in dysfunctional families is second nature to Linda Reiter, a founding member of the Shattered Globe who traces her storefront-theatre pedigree back to the Off-Loop scene's seventies halcyon days. Her next fractured psyche is the gentleman-caller-obsessed Amanda Wingfield in a rare, Brechtian production of The Glass Menagerie  (through Nov. 2nd), which calls for screened projections of images and words drawn from the story.

LARRY YANDO  After three years as Scar in The Lion King, Larry Yando had to abdicate the throne: His 48-pound lion suit was killing his knees. Now he's reprising the title role in Nixon's Nixon at Writers' Theatre (through Oct. 19th). Then he returns as Scrooge in the Goodman's A Christmas Carol (Nov. 21st-Dec. 31st). Such divergent parts show the scope of an artist as mesmerizing in musical comedy as he is in Shakespearean tragedy. "The first thing I tell my [DePaul] students," he says, "is don't be an asshole." 

ELIZABETH LAIDLAW  There's presence, and then there's Elizabeth Laidlaw. Six feet tall with a deep, commanding voice, she's a foreground favorite of directors JoAnne Akalaitis (Court Theatre) and Barbara Gaines (Chicago Shakespeare). This fall, in The Maids at Writers' Theatre (Nov. 18th-Apr. 9th), Laidlaw plays one of two murderous lesbian siblings; the story is based on a 1933 French homicide. "They found eyeballs on the stairs," Laidlaw says, shuddering. "I'm going to have to do a little bit of extra personal work to leave this one behind at the theatre." 

KEVIN GUDAHL  In Turn of the Century at the Goodman (through Oct. 26th), Kevin Gudahl takes on the part of a producer-songwriter seething with jealousy over the success of rivals played by Jeff Daniels and Rachel York. In real life, nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1984, the Rogers Park resident has been a cultivating presence in Chicago's thespian family tree, encouraging budding talents to put down roots here, earning his keep as a character actor for hire, and perpetuating the art form's bedrock language as one of the city's finest standard-bearers of classical drama.

DARRELL W. COX  For almost 20 years, Darrell Cox has been synonymous with Profiles Theatre, a bare-knuckles Buena Park storefront specializing in tales of the American dream as twitching nightmare. Cox's Jeff Award-winning repertoire is littered with damaged, damaging antiheroes: serial killers, older guys with skeevy intentions toward barely legal girls. "I try not to take it personally," says the actor, who plays the cult leader Jim Jones in The People's Temple at American Theatre Company (through Sept. 28th) and then moves over to Profiles for the dark comedy Men of Tortuga (Oct. 9th-Dec. 7th).

STEPHANIE DIAZ  Stephanie Diaz has been tagged with all the usual Latino stereotypes—sassy, saucy, spicy, spitfire. For the record, she's "got no problem playing gang girls and maids, as long as there's a point," says the bilingual actress, who, in Remy Bumppo's Tartuffe, turned a stereotypical maid into the smartest person in the room. Her skills will next be put to use as a self-sacrificing Mexican maid in Kita y Fernanda at 16th Street Theatre in Berwyn (Oct. 2nd-25th).

JENNIFER GRACE  "It still blows my mind," says Jennifer Grace of the smash-hit reaction to the Hypocrites' nerve-striking resuscitation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town last season. Through October 26th, the company is reprising the show with this 33-year-old in the lead. Her own upbringing as an army brat in small-town Kansas and recent wedding to a fellow actor no doubt bring insight to her devastating, pivotal portrayal of Emily Webb, whose postnuptial tragic death and belated appreciation for life's small moments reduce audiences to puddles.

JON HILL  He was tortured by soldiers in Bruce Norris's The Unmentionables and had his fingers chopped off by loan sharks this past summer in Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts. But this fall, Steppenwolf's Jon Hill finally gets to eschew mutilation for the metaphysical: He plays Crow, the ethereal alter ego of a Japanese teen runaway, in Kafka on the Shore (Sept. 27th-Nov. 16th). At only 23, the company's youngest ensemble member still has something to prove; we have no doubt he will.

E. FAYE BUTLER  The South Side cyclone E. Faye Butler has blown away audiences in musicals of every latitude-last season it was her poetically leavened portrayal of Ella Fitzgerald at Northlight. The multifaceted performer continues to challenge herself, taking on the title role in Court Theatre's Midwest premiere of Caroline, or Change (through Oct. 19th), Tony Kushner's chamber opera about a family maid in Louisiana who is nearly capsized by the hurricane forces of the coming civil rights era. "It's not your average musical," says Butler. "It's going to be a departure from anything I've ever done."

Photograph: Jeff Sciortino

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