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Raven Theatre Company stronger than ever at 30

JasHuysman (left) plays an actor torn between selling out or starting fresh “The Big Knife” co-starring Liz Fletcher RQuade Greg

Jason Huysman (left) plays an actor torn between selling out or starting fresh in “The Big Knife,” co-starring Liz Fletcher, Ron Quade, Greg Caldwell and Chuck Spencer. | Dean Laprairie photo

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When: Through Nov. 11

Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark

Tickets: $36

Info: (773) 338-2177;

Updated: November 8, 2012 6:08AM

‘Attention must be paid.”

The Raven Theatre Company, a cultural cornerstone of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. That is no small achievement. And since this theater has long championed the work of American playwrights, including Arthur Miller, it is only fitting to begin this story with that famous line from “Death of a Salesman.”

Raven is, in the most literal sense, a mom-and-pop operation, founded in 1983 by Michael Menendian and his wife, actress JoAnn Montemurro, who still run the place and set the homespun but professional tone. Not surprisingly, the couple’s daughter, Sophie, who grew up “tending shop,” is now a working actress, too.

This family vibe is palpable from the spacious street-level lobby of Raven to the stage itself. Since 2002, the company has made its permanent home in a handsomely retrofitted grocery store at the corner of Clark and Granville that contains both a 150-seat mainstage and a 60-seat studio. (The smaller space is often rented out to itinerant companies, including, at the moment, Interrobang Theatre Project, whose production of “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing,” an “adult play” by Paula Vogel, runs through Oct. 21.)

Over the decades, Raven (whose annual budget is about $430,000) has staged memorable productions of Miller classics (“Salesman,” “A View From the Bridge,” and, most recently, “The Price”), as well as zesty takes on David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” William Inge’s “Bus Stop” and even a truly memorable version of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” It has assembled a close-knit group of actors and designers and subscribers and neighborhood theatergoers. It also has developed an educational outreach program that serves thousands of Chicago public school students through its classes and camps.

And all this brings me to its current production — a most intriguing, well-acted revival of “The Big Knife,” Clifford Odets’ rarely seen play from 1949 whose 1955 film version starred Jack Palance and Ida Lupino.

Make no mistake: Menendian, who has done a sleek directing job (with period flair by way of Ray Toler’s set design and Montemurro’s chic costumes), clearly sees Odets’ drama as a great morality tale, and perhaps even a statement of his own mission in reverse. The story is set in Hollywood, when the almost indentured servitude-like contracts of the studio system were in full force, and artistic compromise was part of longterm but lucrative deals made with the devil. What hasn’t changed, of course, is the hunger for scandal andgossip, and the sense that “the theater” is dead, and certainly can’t finance a decent lifestyle.

At the center of the storm here is Charlie Castle (Jason Huysman), a highly successful actor torn between selling out to the studio yet again, or, as his pampered but clear-eyed wife, Marion (Liz Fletcher), urges him to do, leave it all behind and reinvent himself in New York. Of course it is not at all as clear-cut as that for there are quite a few seriously compromising personal factors to be dealt with, too.

Menendian has gathered a slew of fine character actors to play the many and varied Hollywood suits, seductresses and others, and all of them nail their roles. They include: Chuck Spencer as the volatile studio boss; Greg Caldwell as Hoff’s low-life henchman; Mike Boone as Castle’s self-punishing press rep; Jen Short as Buddy’s hot, unsatisfied wife; Jennifer Dymit as Dixie Evans, a young Marilyn Monroe-type; Ron Quade as Castle’s pragmatic, ever-bargaining agent; Ian Novak as the novelist headed back East, and Montemurro as a veteran gossip columnist. If the play’s final scene is all but unplayable (it mimics a B-movie), so be it. Everything else keeps you watching and waiting.

Note: The rest of Raven’s anniversary season will include: “Boy Gets Girl” (Jan. 15-March 2, 2013), Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman’s look at a blind date that becomes a living nightmare; Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “A Soldier’s Play” (Feb. 12-March 30, 2013); and Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (April 30-June 29, 2013).

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