Family chaos in Berkeley Rep’s riveting ‘Cult of Love’  

L-R, Cass Buggé, Kerstin Anderson, Virginia Kull, Luisa Sermol and Lucas Near Verbrugghe play the Dahl family in Leslye Headland’s "Cult of Love" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through March 3. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The songs that the Dahl family sings, harmoniously, off and on throughout Leslye Headland’s dysfunctional-family comedy-drama “Cult of Love”—Christmas carols, gospel, folk songs—seem at first like a sitcom-style effort to make us laugh at the triteness, the preternatural joviality of this Christian family’s holiday celebration.

The opening-night audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre did indeed laugh heartily, and consistently, at everything, throughout the first two acts of this continually engrossing, short (maybe too short), intermission-less three-act play.

For at least the first act, the songs—accompanied at various times by characters playing piano or guitar or else a cappella—might feel at times like filler. 

But Headland is leading us deftly through a whole (if often confusing and frustratingly elusive) look at one family’s spectacularly emotional meltdown.

Christopher Sears plays one of the Dahl sons in “Cult of Love.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The Dahls have gathered for Christmas: devoutly Christian and earnest, somewhat emotionally unstable Mom (played by Luisa Sermol); affable Dad, who seems to be having memory problems (Dan Hiatt); and their four adult children: Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), who insists, to his parents’ dismay, that he’s left the church but nevertheless appears to be ambivalent; Evie (Virginia Kull), a plain-spoken lesbian; loony-tunes, ultra-devout Diana (a particularly sweet-voiced Kerstin Anderson); and bad-boy son Johnny (Christopher Sears), a recovering drug addict (although Mom’s in denial about that). 

That’s plenty of family for audiences to follow, but there’s more: Evie’s supportive wife (Cass Buggé), Diana’s devout and loyal husband (Christopher Lowell), Mark’s sharp-tongued, unhappy wife (Molly Bernard) and Johnny’s recovering-addict friend, Loren (Vero Maynez), whom he’s sponsoring. 

It’s worth it to list the names of every single actor because each one is excellent in a show in which one weak link could have undermined the finely wrought hyper-realism of the entire production. But under nationally known director Trip Cullman, who brilliantly wrangles the large cast on a wide, exquisitely detailed set (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) that includes living room, dining room, staircase and overwhelmingly glittery Christmas decorations—plus the continually overlapping dialogue and simultaneous activity on various parts of the stage—the play is riveting throughout. 

Still, in the writing, some of the characters’ storylines feel underserved. Evie thinks Dad has early-onset Alzheimer’s and is furious that no one is acknowledging it, but we don’t really see it—Dad’s a little forgetful, that’s all. Mom’s issues receive scant attention from the playwright. Mark’s general ambivalence doesn’t seem to justify his wife’s fury at him, and Evie’s wife seems to exist onstage only to be supportive. Those are just a few examples that indicate the playwright is trying to follow too many threads. 

Vero Maynez, left, pictured with Kerstin Anderson, makes an impression in Berkeley Rep’s “Cult of Love.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Yet a seemingly minor character, Loren, with relatively few (but beautifully concise) lines and played so unflappably by Maynez, makes a strong impression.

And how beautifully Headland and Cullman lead us from laughing at this family’s neuroses and over-the-top tantrums to recognizing the true existential despair that perhaps most cruelly affects those raised in a devoutly religious home like the Dahls’. Ultimately Headland is, as the title implies, exploring love on multiple levels. 

Although by the end most of the characters’ problems remain unresolved, the final song justifies every song that was sung earlier, every unsettled conflict. As one character says, “People want a solution to being human.” 

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Cult of Love” continues through March 3 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29.50-$139 at (510) 647-2949 or

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