Photo: Kevin Berne.

Toba Singer reviews Berkeley Rep’s “Cult of Love”

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Toba Singer
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“It’s Christmas!” is one of those announcements like, “You’re pregnant!” So much depends on context. For example, “If you run through the halls in a women’s dormitory,” as my friend Jeanne used to say, “yelling ‘Pregnant!, Pregnant!’ you might as well be yelling ‘Fire!’ because every woman of that age will run to the nearest exit.” The characters in “Cult of Love” are held hostage to regular reminders from their semi-demented father Bill Dahl (Dan Hyatt) and magical thinking mother Ginny Dahl (Luisa Sermol) that it’s Christmas! “It’s Christmas!” is meant to punctuate their sons’ and daughters’ vitriolic accusations with a full stop, by changing the subject, or locking down escalating random controversies. The keys to that lockdown could unpack painful facts that three wise men would be loathe to drop into any low-hanging Christmas stocking at the Dahl’s house.
Christianity is on trial in this family, and there is no habeas corpus, let alone corpus christi within easy reach to settle the matter once and for all that we need God more than He needs us or vice versa. Nor is it as Bill Dahl insists: God is love and everyone needs love, so what’s the problem? Everyone needs love, but among Bill’s offspring, only charismatic Diana Dahl Bennett (Kerstin Anderson), pregnant with her second child, needs love and God to be one and the same. Among the now-adult sons and daughters victimized by their parents’ music-inflected romancing of the Christ child, are their companions, who, except for the failed Episcopal priest Tom, dig their heels in to defend their partners against the raiment of lies that provided cover as they were shepherded through a childhood of bogus Christmasses and detrmined family outings confected to take their Christian values on the road for a test drive. 

We meet them, as scrutiny by their mates—a lesbian, a former Jewess converted to christianity to please her husband, and a recovering heroin addict, interrogates the siblings’ strength of character and anti-Christ convictions. For all the carrying on, it turns out that the glorious harmony they astonish us with when they sing God’s praises swathed in the enchantment of ancient carols, hypnotizes them from subjects who stand up for what they don’t believe to objects of deferential compliance. 
 Leslye Headland’s writing is pitch-perfect. Director Trip Cullman might as well have been tasked with herding cats. He masterfully blocks this cast through a set of a thousand hazards: arguments bounce from stage left to right, upstairs and down. as characters pick up instruments and play them expertly, drop them, and dance and sing out robustly or with profound delicacy, then bounce on the furniture and tear across the floor, in and out of the kitchen, and out the door entirely, as snow beads on lit windows downstage and stage left. Arguments spark, flare up, go sideways, and drop from earshot as if adhering to a whack-a-mole schematic. Every actor in the cast delivers a first-rate performance.
Christ-centric religion does not hold every family in its thrall, but nearly every family holds to a set of values, imposed from without, but so strenuously internalized, that any challenge to its integument either recapitulates it via a surrogate addiction, or turns the adult son or daughter who rejects it into the minus broker wherever the family has enshrined a plus. According to Headland’s libretto, we are irrevocably bonded to our parents’ narcissistic cathecting. Our need for love and approval sets us up to comply, whether their siren call sings the praises of God or some other purveyor of an internal epistemology that ensnares us like tar paper or suffocates us like holy smoke. Either way, we cannot fully throw off the overlay they impose. 
As I stand outside the theater, under the cover of an overhang, to avoid a post show downpour, the man at my side starts a conversation.

Man: “So what did you think?”

Me: “I thought I will think for hours and hours about what this play asks us sit with, when the times we are living in are asking us to stand up and act on what we must change rather than sit and think about the dial settings socially engineered so as not to be moved.”

Sit with it and see what you think.

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