Leslye Headland’s Satire of Confused Christian Family Rings True
by Barry David Horwitz
“Cult of Love” begins and ends with the Dahl family singing together at Christmas. But a War of Pride explodes after every song. Christian belief, disbelief, and hypocrisy unveil a permanent war inside the family, suggesting the greater wars in American life today.
It’s a guide to America’s self-inflicted wounds that stem from pride in one religion or another. Outsiders can never humble themselves enough to assuage the smug pride of this religious family.
Director Trip Cullman delivers a comic hoot, crammed with magnificent acting and staging. When we see the family home crammed with Christmas lights, we realize we are among Christians who want to impose their beliefs on all who enter their house.
The Dahl family is musical, argumentative, and arrogant—under the guise of loving each other desperately. Four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, offer case-studies of lapsed Christianity or extreme Fundamentalism. They drive each other nuts with their hilarious, self-revealing debates—to the point of wild rejection.
They also play all kind of instruments—guitar, ukelele, bongos, piano—as they gather around Dad (Dan Hitatt) who says he loves everyone equally. Dad is filled with nostalgia and a touch of Alzheimer’s. They swell with Pride as they sing the carols and gospels, while sentimental Mom (Luisa Sermol) avoids the hard truths.
In fact, Leslye Headland’s seven play cycle on the Seven Deadly Sins culminates in “Cult of Love”—signifying Pride, the deadliest of sins. Pride spreads to all characters, each wallowing in personal discord. Their childhoods still weigh heavily.
The four siblings proudly announce their beliefs, their sins, and their disdain for each other. The Dahl family’s “cult of love” leads to circular conflicts between believers and non-believers. They are indignant and unhinged—a sad and funny family battle.
Acceptance is at a minimum. Parents and sister reject Evie (Virginia Kull) because she is married to Pippa (Cass Bugge). Evie and Pippa are proud of their love, but others are just annoyed. The actors really carry the day with breathtaking reactions.
Diana (Kerstin Anderson) is especially vicious toward her sister because her religious fanaticism rejects gay people. Diana is joined in her fanaticism by husband, James (Christopher Lowell)—a failing pastor, making a fascinating, fearful Christian couple.
One prodigal son, Johnny (Christopher Sears), arrives late with fellow AA member Loren (Vero Maynez), who becomes yet another victim of the Dahl family. Johnny follows AA’s higher power mantra, while Loren brings a tinge of reason.
Solid son Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), once a divinity student but now a government lawyer, tries to calm the conflicts, but fails. His logic and songs charm us, but the family attacks him, too. His wife Rachel (Molly Bernard) tries to fit in, but the Dahl’s live in an idealized past that does not include her and rejects him.
To see Pride run up the flagpole and brilliantly dissected to uproarious laughter, visit “Cult of Love” for a precisely rendered picture of our clashing beliefs. Headland calls into question our versions of gender, class, and identity using satire, comedy, and yes, even the Christmas music.
“Cult of Love” by Leslye Headland, directed by Trip Cullman, scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Sophia Choi, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Info: berkeleyrep.org – to March 3, 2024.
Cast: Dan Hiatt, Luisa Sermol, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Molly Bernard, Virginia Kull, Cass Buggé, Kerstin Anderson, Christopher Lowell, Christopher Sears, and Vero Maynez.
Banner photo: Cass Buggé, Kerstin Anderson, Virginia Kull, Luisa Sermol, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe. Photos: Kevin Berne