The bar where Amateur Night at the Big Heart takes place is what sociologists call a "third place" — the first being home, for most people, and the second the workplace. A third place can be a pub, diner, coffee shop, library, post office or anywhere that people congregate and a sense of community prevails. For a student in one of my classes, the third place was a convenience store near where he lived: He used to stumble in there regularly after long nights of studying for snacks and coffee and to exchange jokes with the guys behind the counter. Playwright Terry Dodd's Big Heart Bar and Grill is a Pueblo institution where people kibbitz, tease each other, fight or flirt, come for comfort if they've suffered a letdown or to celebrate after a victory, and it plays a crucial role in the life of the town. Marge, who runs the Big Heart with a kind of weary compassion, knows everybody's history. She'll notice if a regular hasn't shown up for a while or if one of her customers needs a sympathetic ear.
But the bar is in danger. As the play opens (the time period is indeterminate, but seems to be somewhere in the mid-'80s), Marge and waitress-accountant Jo are preparing for their regular talent contest, but only two contestants are on hand: Ernie, known to regulars as the word's oldest busboy and worst ventriloquist, and buckle-bunny Shirley, who's too upset by a recent breakup to go through with her song. A chain cowboy-Western dive called the Cock & Crow has opened nearby and is staging its own amateur night and siphoning off Marge's customers. Even her sixteen-year-old granddaughter is off to visit the place, phony ID in hand. But the Big Heart still has a few loyalists. Young Stacker drags in a helplessly booze-saturated pal to sober up. Shirley is accompanied by her large-bodied, smart-mouthed and lasso-whirling friend Charlene. And there are a couple of strangers, too: a belligerent cowboy and a mysterious and beautiful blonde seated silently at the bar.
Dodd, who also directs with Randal Myler, absorbed the material for Amateur Night at the Big Heart when he was a teenager accompanying his state-patrolman father on his rounds; the script is filled with personal as well as social nostalgia, and the figure of the absent father hovers. Dodd is known for his directing work with ensemble casts, and over the years he has staged many plays in which a sense of place is predominant — for example, a luminous production of Conor McPherson's The Weir, about a group of people living in a remote, ghost-ridden part of rural Ireland who share their stories and alleviate their terrible loneliness in a pub, and The Hot L Baltimore, Lanford Wilson's musical evocation of a group of marginalized people living at a seedy hotel. Designer Shaun Albrechtson has clearly absorbed this ethos: His set evokes the Big Heart with loving detail — from the red-and-yellow condiment dispensers to the faded wooden ceiling beams.
There are a few weaknesses in the cast, some moments when the script doesn't quite convince or cohere, a few stories that could use more followup. (I'd really like to know more about Marge's tribulation-laden relationships with her alcoholic daughter and the granddaughter she's pretty much brought up.) A couple of the monologues, though beautifully written, go on a couple of heartbeats too long. The most stunningly effective speech of the evening is delivered by Marie, the enigmatic blonde, whose description of a visit to her childhood school is full of telling images and infused with a deep sense of loss. Diana Dresser gives this speech the quiet and precise intensity it deserves, and Jack Wefso's response as Stacker is equally touching. Rhonda Brown is a strong and appealing Marge; Jack Casperson gives a grounded and convincing performance as Ernie; Lisa Rosenhagen makes Shirley by turns feisty and broken, and Brian Brooks provides a moment of grace as Paul.
Third places are always time-bound and provisional, dependent not only on the physical stability of an institution, but also the dynamics among a particular set of people. Amateur Night at the Big Heart is both a celebration of enduring community and a lament for times and connections lost.