Pulling off Highway 101 at Refugio Road and driving the winding, tree-shaded lane leading to the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre is a bit like traveling back in time. One can imagine families riding on horse-drawn wagons arriving to enjoy dinner and a show. In the evening just around sunset, when the lighting is soft, the grand lodge rises graciously above porch and pool, and guests are lured by the smell of tri-tip, garlic bread and chili, served al fresco at long tables, where you can get to know your fellow theater-goers.
After dinner, the ringing of a bell signaled the show was about to start. We were ushered into the tiny theater by Susie Couch, who along with her husband, David, runs the theater and produces the shows, sometimes acting in them as well.
As in a restaurant, each party was called by name and shown to their seats. The vibe was folksy and familiar as the Couches greeted us informally from the diminutive stage, welcoming season-ticket holders by name and introducing other notable members of the audience.
The set — beautifully done by David Couch and director Jim Sirianni — transported us from down-home to upper-crust as we entered the living room of a New England family in 1970. Along with that migration, we entered a completely different world.
A.R. Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour shines a light onto an evening in the lives of Bradley (Don Margolin) and Ann (Kathy Marden), a beyond-middle-age couple and their two grown children. But it’s a very specific evening, the one in which John (Matt Cooper), a playwright, chooses to tell his father that he has written a new play about, well, him specifically and the family in general. Bradley is distressed at the thought of the honesty with which he may be portrayed in the play and goes to great lengths to try to persuade his son not to put it on.
All the while, Bradley is sipping on scotch and urging his son to have a drink and join in “the cocktail hour,” proclaiming it to be a great and time-honored tradition of American family life. John continually refuses. His mother and sister, Nina (Leesa Beck), arrive on the scene and eventually John starts drinking. Everyone loosens up considerably as crises in the kitchen delay dinner further and further. As may be expected, family secrets slip out and revelations are made as the evening wears on.
Masterfully directed by Sirianni, a veteran of Circle Bar B, the cast worked well together and managed to use the limited stage space cleverly so that it never seemed cramped. The casting also was superb — they just felt like a family, with a smooth surface visible to the public, and so much going on behind closed doors.
Marden, especially, was a joy to watch. Her facial expressions and portrayal of Ann as an almost cartoonishly WASP-y wife and mother, yet also a vulnerable woman, gave the character an unexpected depth while providing much laughter.
Beck was also spot-on as Nina, the older sister who feels frustrated at having such a small part in not only her brother’s play but in her family, and longs to do something meaningful with her life. Tired of being in the background, she finally finds the courage to stand up and speak out, and Beck brought a stirring spirit to the role.
Margolin and Cooper were solid as the men of the family. Cooper never seemed to be acting, and he played John’s high-emotion outbursts smoothly and seamlessly. Margolin was suitably stiff and slightly bewildered as someone trying to hold onto a way of life while watching the progress of the world around him, which he does not fully understand.
“Nobody goes to the theater anymore,” Bradley says when John tells him he has written a new play.
Well, Pop, I’m sorry to contradict you, but the theater is alive and well and utterly enjoyable at Circle Bar B.
Dinner theater is offered beginning at 7 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays and at 1 p.m. on Sundays, with The Cocktail Hour running through Oct. 31. Click here for more information.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.