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Honky- Tonkin'

[whitespace] Amateur Night at the Big Heart
Counter Culture: Don Hiatt, Lisa Recker and Linda Hoy enjoy the antics of the other regulars.

Locals face last call in 'Amateur Night at the Big Heart'

By Heather Zimmerman

IN A TIME SO overwhelmed by chains and megastores that we have a Starbucks on virutally every corner and a Wal-Mart in every small town, local character is fast becoming an endangered species. In depicting a slice of everyday life at a Colorado honkytonk threatened by a chain disco moving into town, Terry Dodd's Amateur Night at the Big Heart demonstrates the value of the local institutions, which could be lost if only chains prevail. San Jose Stage Company closes its season with Dodd's play, presenting a touchingly lifelike portrait of a small-town hangout and its colorful customers that is nicely helmed by guest director David Ogden Stiers.

Just the week before we first see it, the Big Heart Bar and Grill was the place in Pueblo, Colorado, to meet "buckle bunnies," drink a cold Bud and dance to Patsy Cline on Saturday night. The bar's amateur talent contest attracted more than 30 acts. But this Saturday is opening night for the Cock & Crow, a massive country & western chain nightclub across town, and the Big Heart is empty except for a few regulars and a couple of newcomers. Among the remaining frequent customers are the outspoken Charlene (Lisa Recker) and her best friend Shirley (Terri McMahon), who is nursing a heart broken by the town libertine; down-to-earth cowboy Stacker (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and old hippie Jim (Brad Moniz). The only person signed up for the talent competition is Ernie (Don Hiatt), a perpetual contestant and a Big Heart employee whose botched ventriloquist act is entertainingly cringe-worthy. Ernie's longtime girlfriend, Jo (Linda Hoy), the Big Heart's cook, and Marge (Judith Miller), the bar's owner, are a pair of motherly figures who dispense friendly greetings and advice along with food and beer. Throughout the evening, a few other locals drop by for a drink and some good company.

Just how deeply the feeling of fellowship runs at the Big Heart is proven when a drunken cowboy starts harassing and groping Marie (Melanie Slivka), an aloof stranger sitting at the bar. Of course, the attacker is instantly stopped, but his hilarious punishment at the hands of patrons and proprietor alike entails much more than just getting thrown out.

Underlying its many comic moments, however, the play has a subtle aura of melancholy and loss, from Marge's defeated resignation about the Big Heart's probable demise to the quiet depression of Marie. Dodd knowingly pokes a little fun at this sense of sadness with several jokes about the mournful nature of all the country songs on the bar's jukebox, but the play itself is like a woebegone western ballad of changing times. This "song" loses momentum in places where Dodd has inserted some too-deliberate monologues, as if systematically giving each character his or her say; these folks are so plain-spoken, it seems unlikely they're keeping much to themselves that a monologue can further illuminate. It's much more effective--and the play is at its best--when these characters reveal their quirks, hangups and histories in interactions with each other.

Fortunately, even at the play's slow points, the characters maintain their appeal thanks to a wonderful ensemble cast and Stiers' sensitive direction. At first glance some of these drinkin', cussin' and hog-tyin' types might seem like over-the-top stereotypes, but the actors flesh them out with layers of complexity and feeling, rendering them with the big hearts promised in the play's title.

Amateur Night at the Big Heart plays Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm thru Jun 27 at the Stage Theater, 490 S. First St, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$22. 408.283.7142

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From the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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