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Amateur Night at the Big Heart is a pro production at the Aurora Fox

Amateur Night at the Big Heart, a comedy/drama by Denver playwright and director Terry Dodd, first saw the light of day as a staged reading at the Denver Center Theatre Company 25 years ago.The following year, the play received its world premiere at the Arvada Center, directed by David Ogden Stiers -- best known as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H. A revised version -- burnished and cut -- opens tonight at the Aurora Fox.

Amateur Night takes place on a full moon Saturday night in a cowboy bar in Pueblo. "Everyone's looking to get their hearts broken or get laid," says Dodd. "There are rodeo groupies, a couple of buckle bunnies."

As a teenager, Dodd spent many hours accompanying his father, a state patrolman and liquor enforcement officer, on his rounds. "We would go to bars and lounges," he remembers. "Sometimes we'd be there when they opened at eight in the morning. That crowd is very different. I'd be looking at the lone woman wanting to get in and wondering, Whoa, what's her story? It was different later, when the place was packed." The plot of Amateur Night arose from these speculations: "You see all of humanity in a bar, from the good to the funny to the really sad."

Dodd is known as an actors' director, particularly skilled at creating ensemble pieces, and he and co-director Randy Mylar are fielding a first-rate, fourteen-member cast that includes Best of Denver winner Rhonda Brown as the bartender, Diana Dresser as a mysterious, business-suited and somewhat Hitchcockian blonde, and Jack Casperson as Ernie, who competes in the bar's regular talent contest and is, according to Dodd, "the world's oldest busboy and worst ventriloquist."

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Another Dodd strength is his musicality: Amateur Night features songs by Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, among others. He has an acute sense of place and is adept at conveying a bittersweet sense of time passing -- and just how that passage of time affects individual lives. As the action begins, a chain country-and-Western disco called the Cock & Crow has just opened nearby, and the Big Heart Bar and Grill seems fated to go the way of so many beloved local hangouts.

But perhaps there's hope for the place. "You know what happens if you play a country-and-Western song backwards," Dodd says. "You sober up, your wife comes home, and your dog comes back to life."

Amateur Night at the Big Heart runs through May 13 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora. For ticket information, call 303-739-1970 or go to www.aurorafox.org.

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