On dark, cold days, a cozy sweater can make all the difference. That's the general conceit behind Portlander Andrew Wardenaar's new play, The Sweatermakers, which in some ways feels like an exploration of another world entirely. The protagonists, siblings Brin (Jen Rowe) and Henry (JR Wickman), knit sweaters for a mysterious organization that delivers the garments to those who've experienced great loss. When they first appear onstage, with wild eyes and ear-to-ear smiles, Brin and Henry don't seem quite human, and their loud, childish interactions feel oddly cartoonish. Soon, bits of humanity poke through, but it's hard to identify with characters who snap in an instant from scarfing down cookies to bloodcurdling screams.
But then Brin meets the handsome Shaun (Ben Buckley), and this immersively weird world begins to collapse. For long stretches, we forget about the mysterious sweater-delivery system. An all-knowing therapist with hypnotic powers appears and then vanishes. The Sweatermakers becomes a play about loneliness and the lengths to which people will go for human connection. When things get serious, the actors, under Matthew Zrebski's direction, show their range. Roweâs portrayal turns from funny to tragic. As Henry, Wickman nails both animated and sensitive moments. And from a newscaster to a European train conductor, Sharon Mann brilliantly plays every minor role in the productionâa reminder that even the blackest comedies can achieve true levity.