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THEATER REVIEW: “Groundswell” shows demise of apartheid didn’t heal social wounds

Disappointment is the common denominator in the lives of three men in Ian Bruce’s “Groundswell,” playing through April 17 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Apartheid is over, equality is law, but these three aren’t quite on solid, let alone equal ground.

Thami (Owiso Odera) barely makes a living as gardener of the Garnet Lodge in a sleepy beachfront South African town, but takes over caretaking duties in low season, when the owner goes to Capetown. Now he sits composing a letter full of hope and empty promises to his wife and daughters in a distant slum.

Also on the grounds is handyman Johan (Antony Hagopian), an Afrikaner ex-cop once convicted of manslaughter, now trying to supplement his meager income with work as a commercial diver (a job which is ruining his health). Johan is not allowed to hobnob with the guests, partly because of his notoriety and partly because he favors the grape too much.

Johan hardly knows who he is anymore – “ex-con” isn’t the designation he wants to be known by, but he’s a loner on shaky financial and emotional ground, thinking that money will solve his problems.

The innocent and openhearted Thami and the cleverly manipulative Johan make an odd pair. But South Africa is diamond country; they are united by mutual economic need and are pondering a mining partnership. They need an investor.

This night there is a rare wintertime guest – Smith (Ned Schmidtke), a former investment banker of some means, and though Johan has been expressly forbidden access to the main house when guests are present, he convinces Thami that this man may represent the only way out of their economic doldrums – and that only he, a white man, can get another white man to invest.

Thami serves a lovely crayfish dinner and a nice wine as Johan starts in on his pitch. Smith has his own sorrows: pushed into early retirement by an affirmative action program, he then lost his wife to a hot-rodding driver. He is here in search of a golf game. Still, he listens politely, registers suspicion of the government (“Why not fob off the nation’s spent natural resources on the hungry?”) – and refuses.

He may regret it, as Johan, by now under the influence and increasingly desperate, becomes more insistent and less civil. He even pulls out the race card (Thami’s father disappeared into the maw of a DeBeers mine years before). And there’s also that knife in the drawer.

By the time this is over, these characters will know more about each other than they may want to.

“Groundswell,” tautly directed by Kyle Donnelly, benefits from fine acting by the triumvirate. Especially notable is UCSD MFA Odera, who stepped in at the last minute to bring Thami to life and make the part his own.

Hagopian’s Johan shows the proper combination of a tightly wound ball of anger covered with a slippery veneer of hail-fellow-well-met.

Schmidtke is effective as Smith, whose own problems make him slow to realize that the situation is spinning out of control.

Apartheid was an unlamented social reality. Pity its demise did not solve other social ills.

The details

“Groundswell” plays through April 17 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.