Heart of the State


Terry Dodd sees a universal truth in change, a profound lesson in life’s inevitable transitions.
Those themes dominate “Amateur Night at the Big Heart,” a folksy comedy penned by Dodd nearly 25 years ago. The show focuses on the patrons and servers at a small Pueblo bar, a neighborhood watering hole that’s threatened by the opening of a bigger and flashier place on the other end of town.
After a first reading at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and a full world premiere at the Arvada Center in the late 1980s, the show about the distinctive culture of southern Colorado enjoyed a revival outside of the state, running at the San Jose Stage Company in 2002.
As Dodd worked with co-director and Tony Award nominee Randy Myler to bring “Amateur Night” to the Aurora Fox stage as the last production of the theater’s twenty-seventh season, he noted that the decades and the traveling productions hadn’t distilled the play’s deeper messages.
“There are moments in this play where you bemoan the passing of time and places. The theme of change underlies this play,” Dodd said during a rehearsal before the show’s premiere at the Fox on April 20. “Life, at its best, is transitory.”
Those observations come in the constant interactions between the cast of colorfully flawed characters who frequent the Big Heart, the fictional bar that gives the play its title and its ambience.
“There are moments of connection here,” Dodd said. “It’s a play with big hearts. You don’t know that right off, but it’s a country and western tip of the hat.”
There’s Stacker (Jack Wefso), a kind-hearted customer who’s prone to musing about life at its halfway point as he celebrates his thirty-fifth birthday. As Charlene (Mari Geasair) and Shirley (Lisa Rosenhagen) prep a dance routine for the bar’s amateur talent show, they also verbally tear down Ron (Kurt Brighton), Shirley’s ex who’s been seen cavorting with another woman around Pueblo. Ernie (Jack Casperson) and Jo (Karen Erickson), are a veteran couple and veteran servers at the Big Heart, and Marge (Rhonda Brown) is the proprietor who wrangles the Big Heart’s crowd.
The action unrolls on a Friday night as a new competitor, The Cock and Crow, opens its doors on the other end of town. As the crowds flock to the bigger and fancier bar, the Big Heart’s customers and staff must deal with the possibility of closure, even as dust-ups, arguments, dances and country music explode around them.
For Dodd, the Big Heart’s story reflects his own roots in Pueblo. Dodd’s childhood trips with his father, a liquor enforcement officer whose rounds included visits to bars across southern Colorado, helped provide the primal material for the play.
“He would go around and check places. I was a kid – 12 or 13 – and I would go work with him. I was watching people,” Dodd said. “We would be at bars that would open at 8 a.m. and I would see those people. It was a whole cross-section.”
A production of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” at the Denver Center in the 1980s served as another inspiration for its structure and themes. Set in a San Francisco bar, the show’s focus on individual stories and personalized conflict offered a creative template for Dodd and material gleaned from a childhood spent in Pueblo.
In reviving the show for a run at the Fox, Dodd was able to return to its roots in working with Myler, who directed the first staged reading of “Big Heart” at the Denver Center.
“It’s always stayed with me. The setting is nice, the writing is good. All of the characters are very rich. Terry is one of our better playwrights,” Myler said. “Before, it was a reading, and we had a week to work on it. I’m revisiting it for the first time. There are things that we’ve streamlined and cut to move the story along.”
Despite amendments to the script and the luxury of a full staging (scenic designer Shaun Albrechtson helped turn the Fox’s main stage into an intimate bar that takes its design cues from the Skylark bar in Denver), the heart of “Big Heart” has remained constant. The deeper messages of transitions in a small community have a particular resonance at the Aurora theater, a former neighborhood movie theater that’s seen plenty of transformation and change.
“It’s about neighborhoods, culture and growing – and fading away. It will change. This place changed. We used to watch double features here,” said Casperson, a veteran of the Aurora Fox who’s been performing on Denver stages for six decades. “It’s a ‘Cheers’ with a country western edge. It’s down home.”
That feel comes from the characters’ individual stories, as well as careful attention to the ambience and mood of the piece. The Big Heart’s jukebox carries tunes by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, singles by Joel McCrea and the Sons of the Pioneers. Such touches helped draw Erickson to her role as Jo, a character with deep roots in the community and its most colorful characters.
“It’s the most American sounding music in the world. In reconnecting with some of that, it makes me feel grounded,” Erickson said. “It’s where I belong.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707


“Amateur Night at the Big Heart”
Through May 13
Aurora Fox
9900 E. Colfax Ave.
Tickets start at $24
Information: 303-739-1970; aurorafox.org