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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewGuess what, kids! Your family is a 'Cult of...

Guess what, kids! Your family is a ‘Cult of Love’

Leslye Headland's new play at Berkeley Rep delves into the multifarious dysfunctions of a Jesus freak clan.

I know I’ve asked this before, but it bears repeating: why was this Christmas-centered show put on in February? Was it to get Harry Clarke up soon enough to possibly avoid comparisons to the film Saltburn? I imagine they could have moved that show earlier or later in the season to garner it the same acclaim. Maybe I’m just one of those people that has an adverse reaction to seeing holiday accoutrement outside of December, but this show really should have been staged in the lead-up to the holiday it depicts in such wince-inducing detail.

I’ll say this, though: Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love (world premiere through March 3 at Berkeley Rep) nails down why Charlie Brown-types like myself get so irked about Noel. It often forces us to be around our family, and some of us will do anything to get the hell away from those people. There isn’t enough liquor on Gaia’s green Earth to fully steel us for putting up with the obnoxious circus characters with whom we share a bloodline.

That’s certainly true of the Dahl family. When outsider Loren (Vero Maynez) first steps into the gratingly-cozy Midwestern two-story home, she catches these blue-eyed Jesus freaks mid-folk hymn, triggering a look on her that one imagines Alice having upon first stepping through the looking glass.

It won’t be long before Loren’s wrapped up in the goings-on of parents Bill (Dan Hiatt) and Ginny (Luisa Sermol) and Bill’s ever-vanishing memory; constantly-pregnant daughter Diana (Kerstin Anderson), whose Episcopalian priest husband James (Christopher Lowell) was recently pushed out of his church; queer stand-out Evie (Virginia Kull), who, along with wife Pippa (Cass Buggé), seem to be the only ones concerned about Bill’s condition; and job-hopper Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), whose Jewish wife Rachel (played excellently this night by understudy Emily Ota) may have reached her limit with her husband’s inability to act when he should.

And that’s not even getting into recovering addict Johnny (Christopher Sears), who’s late to arrive and shows up with Loren in tow. Hijinks and family secrets ensue.

‘Cult of Love’ ensemble. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Headland (best known for the Natasha Lyonne TV series Russian Doll) takes a fine stab at Tracy Letts territory. The slow-burn “family gathering drama” is a theatre staple for a reason, allowing for both comedy and pathos in equal measure. Hell, one of my favorite shows from last year was a world premiere that did just that with a Black family. The secret to pulling it off is to show the audience why these characters would consciously want to gather together on a regular basis when all it does is stir the pot.

Leaning into the religious angle is a good choice for Headland, as family and God tend to be the hardest things to shake when granted the freedom to do so. Most of us are raised being told how important both are, how you owe them your lifelong fidelity, and how you’ll never have another. It’s one of the great joys of adulthood to learn how that’s not true.

Still, Headland sets up the Dahl children as having something akin to a symbiosis, necessitating that they be with one another even when they often don’t want to. That’s not just because of religious, orientation, or political differences. No, it also has to do with unchecked mental health issues that only the now-adult kids will acknowledge, let alone act on. Evie seems to be the only one moved to act about Bill’s possible dementia or Alzheimer’s, and we eventually learn that Diana is possibly bi-polar and that another one of the sibs is “on the spectrum.”

When this comes to a head during the play’s climax, the parents can only stand there dumbfounded as their kids almost instinctively take action. Sure, there’s the fact that younger generations are better-versed at recognizing certain signs, but there’s also the fact that fundamentalists think prayer is stronger than any medication, so they rely on that in lieu of actual medical help.

Kinda like a cult. The kids are each other’s escape just as much as what keeps them tethered to this house and its constant guitar-aided sing-alongs.

Kerstin Anderson, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, and Virginia Kull in ‘Cult of Love.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

As is typical of the Rep, the detail put into the tech is top-notch. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is lovingly detailed with little touches, from the snow outside the windows to the color of the kitchen stage-left. The cast are mostly up to the task, with understudy Emily Ota all but stealing the show the night I saw it. Yet, Ota is so good in her role that it only highlights how Near-Verbrugghe isn’t much in her league. It’s not just a direction for the actors, it’s one actor merely falling back on recitation of lines rather than building his character.

It’s no secret that the Rep recently sent out a survey asking whether they should eliminate COVID-safe performances altogether. Right now, they’re reserved for Sunday and Tuesday performances, but they’ll likely be gone for good. I saw Cult of Love during its first COVID-safe Tuesday, which saw the house manager and several ushers not even put on masks. In the theatre, a couple a few rows ahead of me never put on masks at all.

Sure, the Rep’s great HVAC system made sure my Aranet4 never read CO² levels higher than 747ppm over the course of the near-two-hour runtime. But when I saw those ushers and that couple so blasé about not masking during a supposedly COVID-safe show, that’s when I knew that this was likely to be the last of the Rep’s shows with any measures; that their immuno-compromised patrons have to give up on spirit-lifting nights of theatre. A company and venue of this size should know better.

But then, this show is about smart people doing things they know they shouldn’t. At least the characters have the excuse of being part of a dramatic-comedy script that well balances the two. I won’t spoil it, but at the end of the show, several family members walk out, vowing never to return to the house. It seems as though several Rep patrons will have to do the same.

And on Christmas, no less. 

CULT OF LOVE’s world premiere runs through March 3 on the Roda Theatre stage at the Berkeley Rep. Tickets and info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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