Reviewed by Judy Richter
Although apartheid is no longer official policy in South Africa, some of its uglier remnants still blight the country. South African playwright Ian Bruce explores some of those remnants in "Groundswell," being given its West Coast premiere by San Jose Repertory Theatre. Running more than 1 1/2 hours without intermission, the action takes place in the handsome main room (set by John Iacovelli with lighting by David Lee Cuthbert) of a beachfront guest house in a small town on South Africa's west coast.
It's a foggy winter day, and the low-key Thami (Dwight Huntsman), the gardener and now substitute innkeeper, is preparing for its sole guest. He's interrupted by the arrival of a friend, Johan (Scott Coopwood), a former cop and now diver. Johan is full of grandiose ideas about buying a permit for him and Thami to hunt for the diamonds that often wash up along rivers. The possibility of wealth is tempting to Thami, a black man whose wife and children live in a hovel in Queenstown. Johan, who is white, thinks the guest, Smith (Peter Van Norden), an apparently wealthy white businessman, will put up the front money in exchange for a share of the profits. When Smith refuses, things get out of hand.
Issues of race arise not only because of Thami's family but also because of Johan's belief that he was wrongly convicted of manslaughter for trying to help a black man. In addition, Smith feels he was wrongly forced to retire early because his job went to a black man. Unfortunately, the play goes off balance quite early because Coopwood is so hyper and annoying as Johan that he doesn't evoke any sympathy, unlike the other two characters. He starts at too high a level, not allowing the audience any chance to learn more about him or care to learn more about him. Part of the problem may also lie with Kirsten Brandt's direction, although the other two actors seem to have mastered their characters quite well.
Besides the handsome set and evocative lighting, the production benefits from Steve Schoenbeck's sound design with its background of the ocean, foghorns and a barking dog. The costumes are by Maggie Morgan.
Athol Fugard, who, like Bruce, is a white South African playwright, also has tackled post-apartheid issues, but to greater success—or so it would seem from this production.