Pick! ASR Theater ~~“Cult of Love” a Family Riot at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Resentments and accusations derail a family Christmas in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 3.

As in Tracy Letts’ August:Osage County and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage—but nowhere near as savagely—the veneer of nicety slowly peels away as the Dahl family reunites for an annual holiday celebration. And as in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, venality displaces civility as the alcohol flows. Headland’s brilliant script adroitly acknowledges its predecessors without blatant imitation.

With snow falling continually outside the windows, Christmas cheer looks likely in the Dahl family’s upper-middle-class home, decorated to the max by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado. Its underlying elegant comfort is apparent even though every part of it is covered with lights and seasonal décor. Maldonado’s rococo visual treatment extends throughout the wide stage of Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, a dazzling background for an excursion into familial conflict decades in development—not in the playwright’s case, but in the lives of her characters.

… Hilarious as it is insightful …

The Dahl home is also festooned with musical instruments—piano, guitars, violin, ukulele, flute, drums, and more—that the clan employs to perform Christmas songs throughout the show. Even though the ten performers don’t appear to be organically related, they do a marvelous job of emulating family harmonies as they sing and play classic holiday songs. This happens early in the first act, seducing the audience into expecting a potentially happy event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(L­–R): Cass Buggé (Pippa Ferguson), Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl, kneeling), Luisa Sermol (Virginia “Ginny” Dahl), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Rep through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Dan Hiatt stars as Bill Dahl, the piano-playing patriarch beginning to have memory problems. Fully cognizant and conversational, he’s nowhere near suffering from dementia, but his occasional lapses provoke questions from his adult children about his fitness, and suggestions that soon it will be time to consign him to full-time professional care.

Such discussions are merely smokescreens for the real issues eating away at all of them. Innuendoes and minor sniping soon morph into barely-contained guerilla warfare, most of it disturbingly funny. Comedy depends on provoking the audience through accidents, embarrassments, and absurdities. Cult of Love mines them all.

Luisa Sermol appears opposite Hiatt as his loyal and very religious wife Ginny, while Lucas Near-Verbrugghe embodies the role of eldest son Mark, a former Supreme Court clerk and would-be Lutheran minister who’s disappointed his family and himself by not living up to his potential. Mark’s wife Rachel, skillfully played last week by understudy Emily Ota, is the audience’s disaffected point-of-view observer who launches barbs almost at random during the Dahls’ escalating and unresolvable disputes.

Their many issues include angry lesbian daughter Evie (Virginia Kull), who’s had the audacity to bring home her new, recently-pregnant wife Pippa (Cass Buggé). In a paroxysm of liberality, the Dahls welcome them to the party. Much more problematic is Dahl daughter Diana (Kerstin Anderson) a true-believer fundamentalist whose penchant for channeling spirits and talking in tongues has cost her husband James (Christopher Lowell) his tenure as an Episcopalian minister. With nowhere else to go, Diana and James have been staying with her parents for the past month. Far more deadly than Dad’s memory problems is Diana’s failure to take her psychosis medications, her potential mishandling of an infant that we hear upstairs but never see, and her rejection of another developing infant in her womb.

Kerstin Anderson (Diana Dahl Bennett), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Mark Dahl), and Virginia Kull (Evie Dahl) in Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love, performing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre now through March 3, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Rounding out this mélange-a-dix is rambunctious younger son Johnny (Christopher Sears), a former child chess prodigy and adult drug addict, who arrives late with an unexpected guest Loren (Vero Maynez), a smart-mouthed lapsed addict (“Nothing is more powerful than drugs”) that Johnny is sponsoring for his 12-step program. As current jargon has it, there’s a whole lot to unpack on Christmas Eve at the Dahl residence. That playwright Headland, director Trip Cullman, and this superb Berkeley Rep cast manage to do it all so seamlessly is truly a Christmas miracle.

Cult of Love is no lightweight comedy. It adheres to popular trends in playwriting that clad serious issues in humor and detour toward weighty ambiguity in the final act. Hilarious as it is insightful, it will leave you with plenty to ponder long after you’ve left the theater.


ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionCult of Love
Written by
Leslye Headland
Directed byTrip Cullman
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru March 3rd
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Telephone(510) 647-2900
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!