Regional Reviews: San Diego
Groundswell is set on the wild and isolated west coast of South Africa. During the summer, the area is nice, but tourists are few and far between out of season. Thami (Owiso Odera) manages a guest house when the weather is poor, though he reverts to being the resort's gardener once the owners return. Johan (Antony Hagopian), a former police officer, has moved to the area to escape publicity associated with a manslaughter for which he did prison time, and he works as a diver for a syndicate that looks for diamonds that may remain in the river after a large diamond mine shut down. Thami's wife and children live in poverty elsewhere, and he dreams of opening a small diamond mining operation on one of the concessions that the South African government is offering on plots of land that used to be part of the larger mine. Johan is eager to help him with this plan, because it represents a legal means to find diamonds. There is also an informal market for diamonds, but jail time awaits those who are caught participating in this market. Thami and Johan do not have adequate start-up funds, however.
Enter Smith (Ned Schmidtke), a recently-retired financial trader who has booked a room in the guest house mistakenly thinking he will find an out-of-the-way golf course in the area. Smith drives a large car into a region where the size of the car indicates the amount of money one has. He is a widower who was pushed out of his job before he was ready to retire, and he has resentments of his own about his situation. Rather than stewing about them, however, he has decided to travel, something he had little time to do while working.
Prior to Smith's arrival, Thami and Johan had decided to pitch him to invest in their mine concession scheme. Thami prepared a nice dinner for the three of them and brought out the best wine. He sternly reminded Johan not to drink, however, implying that Johan could become out of control if he did so.
With such a premise (three men, a business deal involving valuable commodities), one would expect hidden motives, plot reversals, and back-stabbings to go on. And, indeed, a knife that could be used as a weapon is shown to the audience early in the play, implying that it will be put to such a use at some point. But, Mr. Bruce seems to be more interested in exploring the ongoing effects of apartheid on his characters than in building suspense for his plot. So, the dinner and subsequent business proposition proceed languidly, and once we find ourselves in Athol Fugard territory, we quickly realize that Mr. Fugard handles apartheid much more effectively. By the time the expected reversal actually occurs, we've stopped caring about what happens to these characters (or at least, I did). They're too wrapped up in guilting each other over the past to be more than mildly interesting as present-day people.
Director Kyle Donnelly has chosen to give the play space to breathe, which, I guess, is the only valid choice one could have made with this text. Her actors perform well and try to build the tension, but things don't quite gel. Mr. Odera, a last-minute cast replacement, gets the most complex role and manages it with a good deal of grace. Mr. Bruce makes him articulate, well-spoken, morally upright and literate (he has written a letter to his wife that he does not wish to show the others), but hardly a prototype for a black South African whose family lives in poverty. Mr. Hagopian easily shows Johan's potential for menace and less easily reveals any charm that may have attracted Thami to Johan as a business partner. He is not helped by Denitsa Bliznakova's costume design, which makes him look grubby compared to the other two and certainly not credible as the pitch man for a serious business proposal. Mr. Schmidtke has the most underwritten role as a white South African of some privilege who nevertheless does not see himself as part of any sort of ruling class. He plays what he has been given, but I had the feeling that there was so much more to give.
The technical elements are up to the Old Globe's usual high standards, particularly Lindsay Jones' sound design that features a forever-tolling bell.
Groundswell comes up lacking, both as a psychological suspense drama and as a political screed. It runs through April 17 in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($29-67) are available by telephoning the box office at (619) 23-GLOBE
The Old Globe presents Groundswell, by Ian Bruce. Directed by Kyle Donnelly, with Kate Edmunds (Scenic Design), Denitsa Bliznakova (Costume Design), Russell H. Champa (Lighting Design), Lindsay Jones (Sound Design), Gillian Lane-Plescia (Dialect Coach) and Annette Yé (Stage Manager).
Featuring Antony Hagopian (Johan), Owiso Odera (Thami) and Ned Schmidtke (Smith).
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