Well, folks, it's time to round up the usual suspects.

The curtain is about to reopen on one of the longest cliffhangers in the history of political dramas. This week the Equal Rights Amendment is expected to come up again before the Illinois House of Representatives.

When we last left this theater in 1978, the ERA had fallen two votes short of the 107. In Illinois, unlike any other state, you need a three-fifths majority to pass a constitutional amendment and, at the last minute, a few crucial voters had retreated to the wings. Today, Illinois remains the last industrial state not to have ratified.

In some ways this state is a perfect stage for the ERA, symbolically as well as politically. It is, after all, the ancestral home of both Founding Mother Betty Friedan, who played in Peoria, and Pedestal Protector Phyllis Schlafly, who hawks out of Alton.

Furthermore, the Hallowed Halls of Springfield have produced some truly classic performances on the part of the Stop-ERA troupe. It's also been the showplace for the growing political savvy of the women's movement.

The anti-ERA act opened years ago with dire warnings that this amendment would end up in forced marches of men and women into unisex tiolets. When this idea went down the, uh, drain, opponents warned that the ERA would hurt women's Social Security rights. When this too was disproved, they moved on to try to link the amendment with abortion.

Gradually people learned that these two issues were totally unrelated. You can read all about their separation on the button -- "I'm Pro-Life and Pro-ERA" -- and on the determined faces of the nuns volunteering for the ERA phone banks in Chicago.

The head of the National Organization for Women, Ellie Smeal, who is directing the ERA effort in Illinois, says, "We have taken away their issues, one by one."

But the anti-ERA people have been nothing if not "creative" about their facts and resourceful in using issues and anxieties of the audience.

So, today, they have been pushed back to Schlafly's Last Stand: the ERA and the draft.

The latest piece of literature by an ultraconservative group features "Nancy Smith" returning home from war in Saudi Arabia with half a leg, a patch on her eye and an arm in a sling. It bears the legend: this is what the ERA did for my daughter.

In this charming fantasy, "Corporal Smith was assigned to combat duty after male soldiers rioted, charging sex discrimination because less than 50 percent of the soldiers killed were female." Yes, indeedy.

Schlafly, for her part, led into the Illinois Judiciary Committee hearings a chorus line of 59 young women who no, no, no, didn't want to go. They also heard a VFW man whose testimony about current military realities was vintage San Juan Hill.

The pro-ERA forces hit the draft issue head-on. The most persuasive testimony came from Deputy Undersecretary Kathleen Carpenter of the Defense Department.

For openers, Carpenter told the group that the Defense Department is programmed to go from 150,000 women today to 250,000 by 1985, with or without an amendment. They're doing it because of the diminishing population, the increasing importance of technology and because women have proved they can do the jobs.

About the draft and the ERA, she said, "We have the legal authority to put women in combat today. ERA won't affect that one way or the other. But the ERA does not require us to put women in combat or to draft women who have dependents or child responsibilities."

Carpenter's facts not only impressed the legislators but shook the normally unflappable Phyllis Schlafly, who was later heard screaming at the deputy undersecretary in the hall.

But just because the facts are with the ERA supporters doesn't mean that they will necessarily win. They've learned that the second act of the Illinois show is Politics as Usual.

They have to keep the most influential trio in Illinois together on this one. Jane Byrne, mayor of Chicago and Kennedy supporter; Richard Daley, senator, son (of the late Chicago mayor) and Carter supporter; Jim Thompson, governor and Reagan supporter, agree on only one thing these days: the passage of the ERA. The White House, on its part, brought legislators to the Rose Garden last week, but hasn't been trading any highways and byways.

The pro-ERA forces will tell you in a stage whisper how important this vote is. They have had victories lately in Congress, in the courts, against recisions. But the bottom line is three more states. As Ellie Smeal puts it bluntly, "If you are in a movement to ratify, occasionally you have to ratify."

This time, the cast of characters in the old familiar Springfield Show just may improvise a happy ending.