Theater Review: CULT OF LOVE (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

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by Chuck Louden on February 3, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The Dysfunctional Family, whether in a comedy or drama, is a staple of storytelling, from The Bible and Shakespeare to Netflix. We all have one. And what better fodder for drama is there than the dysfunctional American family? Throw in the trope of the Christmas holidays and you know what to expect: Adult children dreading the event knowing there’s the sibling you have unresolved issues with; a self-involved ne’er-do-well sibling enabled by the parents; and Mom, of course, wants a “Perfect Christmas.” At Berkeley Rep, repressed feelings and forced cheer are ever present; accusations are hurled back and forth by the walking wounded; there are recriminations for offenses committed years before; and — for good measure — this reunion has plenty of alcohol and mental illness. With her Cult of Love, Leslye Headland takes the family drama genre and turns it on its head by adding the element of being raised under the umbrella of Christianity in a seemingly loving home.

As the show opens, it’s a snowy Christmas Eve in the cozy kitchen/living room area and the Dahl family is gathered around the piano singing. Dad Bill (Dan Hiatt) is on the piano. Mom Ginny (Luisa Sermol) dressed in bright Christmas red is playing the violin. Very pregnant older sister Diana’s (Kerstin Anderson) singing voice is angelic. Her husband James (Christopher Lowell) is beaming, singing along with her. Older brother Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is playing the guitar. His wife Rachel (Molly Bernard) is going through the motions begrudgingly with her percussion instrument. Baby Sister Evie (Virginia Kull) is on percussion and singing while her girlfriend Pippa (Cass Buggé) is smiling in the background taking in the whole experience. Despite the happy smiles and singing , this is not the von Trapp family Christmas. The family is waiting for the younger prodigal son Johnny (Christopher Sears) to arrive so they can officially start the holiday festivities. He shows up late and brings a surprise “friend” Loren (Vero Maynez) with him.

The entire 100-minute one-act takes place over Christmas Eve and morning. Unlike most family dramas where one person is the villain and the mother is usually portrayed as the sweet sane one, everyone in the Dahl family and their respective spouses are complicated characters. Cycles of emotions come up throughout the evening. For all the drama — a lot of secrets and dark subject matter arise — there are moments of levity.

A sparkling 10-member cast beautifully navigates Trip Cullman’s pointed direction on Arnulfo Maldonaldo’s homey set, festooned with Christmas tchotchkes. Several joyful numbers arranged by musical director Jacinth Greywoode show off the musicality of the Dahl family — their jamboree alone is worth the price of admission. The play is stuffed with issues (homosexuality, pregnancy, alcoholism, et al.), but Headland ensures that each character gets an arc, which is most refreshing these days; everyone has a moment to shine as each of the Dahls reflect on the family dynamics through their own point of view. It’s an intense evening for family as well as the viewers, not knowing what will unfold next. You’ll come out of the theater feeling like you just sat in on an intense family therapy session.

photos by Kevin Berne

Cult of Love
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
in association with Red Yes Studio, Rachel Sussman, and Seaview
Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on March 3, 2024
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

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