Emily Mendel looks at Berkeley Rep’s “Cult of Love”

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Emily S. Mendel
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When a play is set in a cheery multi-room house replete with Christmas decorations, a warm fire, and snow-kissed windows (Arnulfo Maldonado, Scenic Designer), you may surmise there will be turmoil under the merry façade, as such gatherings have become metaphors for disaster.

And playwright Leslye Headland (“Russian Doll,” “Bachelorette,” and the upcoming “Star Wars” series “The Acolyte”), with lots of humor, much wit, perceptive writing, well-crafted muti-faceted characters, and a perfect sense of timing, slowly but surely sucks us into the dark undercurrents of the Dahl family household. With skilled direction by Trip Cullman and a wonderful multi-talented cast, “Cult of Love” is an outstanding, funny, serious, insightful play with so much meat on its bones I would happily see it again.

At first, figuring out who’s who in the Dahl family is a bit confusing. There are the parents, Bill (Dan Hiatt), the aging soft-spoken dad (or is it early-onset dementia?), Ginny, the over-protective mom (Luisa Sermol), happy to bring out a punchbowl full of Manhattans. The Dahls’ Christian faith is a vital part of their lives. To them, love cures all; that’s their cult of love. With the Dahls’ four adult children, they play musical instruments and sing beautifully together. The family’s greatest sense of togetherness is caroling with well-practiced harmony, including their rousing version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”

We first meet their daughter, Diana (Kerstin Anderson), now pregnant with her second child, and her husband, James (Christopher Lowell), a minister. They have been staying with Diana’s parents for a month “to help with the baby,” we are first told. We’ll learn the sad truth as the evening progresses.
Son Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is finishing his US Supreme Court clerkship and taking a legal position his dad dismisses as a “government job.” Before law school, Mark had started but quit seminary school just before graduation. His quandary over his loss of faith haunts him. Perhaps it concerns his marriage to Rachel (Molly Bernard). Formerly Jewish, Rachel converted to the Episcopal Church to try to fit in with the Dahl family but remains an outsider. She and Mark have been living apart, but of course, she is there for the command performance of Christmas with the family, notwithstanding her one-liners and asides.

Married daughter Evie (Virginia Kull) and her wife, the newly pregnant Pippa (Cass Buggé), try to bring some 21st-century sanity into her mother’s denial of her father’s mental deterioration. Despite their evident happiness, Diana entreats the couple to seek God since she is convinced that they really aren’t gay; they only need God’s love.

Finally, past 9:00 on Christmas Eve, with the group grumpy and hungry for their lamb dinner (pronounced “lam-b” from an old family joke), son Johnny (Christopher Sears) shows up. Johnny, a former drug addict, brings along Loren (Vero Maynez), whom he sponsors. The two have been through depths of addiction and pain and see that sometimes one needs to be deprogrammed from family as well as from addictions.

During the late evening and early morning, the children quarrel, confess, and console, but as with most of us, not much changes. But the crux of “Cult of Love” is not about change but how one’s strict adherence to a specific type of religion and love, and rejection of anything else, is no panacea but is really the sin of pride. “Cult of Love” is author Leslye Headland’s last of seven plays in a series she has written about the seven deadly sins. I’d love to see all of them.

Much happens simultaneously in this play, like in a Robert Altman movie. Concentrating on individual conversations is tricky while there are several concurrent ones, but it’s realistic. And director Trip Cullman does an admirable job of keeping all the balls in the air — not easy for the actors either, but they’re up to the task.

A rare play with humor and insight, “Cult of Love” had me thinking about it long after I left the theater.

“Cult of Love” runs through March 3, 2024, at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Its length is approximately one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission. Masks are encouraged but optional for performances from Wednesday through Saturday. Mask-wearing is required in the theatre on all Sundays (matinees and evenings) and Tuesdays. Post-show discussions and closed captioning on your smartphone are available at specific performances. Tickets, $22.50 – $134, subject to change, can be purchased online at www.berkeleyrep.org or by phone at 510 647-2949.
This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

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