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Theater review: ‘Groundswell’ at the Old Globe

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Racism erodes, as surely as the pounding surf.

The pain of apartheid, explicit and insidious, drives three desperate men in “Groundswell,” Ian Bruce’s taut chamber piece now at San Diego’s Old Globe. Set in a port town on the rugged western coast of South Africa, “Groundswell” is a world away from the elegant allegories of Athol Fugard or the inspirational example of Nelson Mandela. Its politics are those of sweat, tears and minerals — diamonds, that is.

On a dark and stormy night — yes, that’s a big part of the play’s atmospheric appeal — two men hatch a plan. Thami (Owiso Odera) is the black caretaker of an oceanfront lodge, saving money to rescue his family from shantytown life. He’s befriended the rough-edged Johan (Antony Hagopian), a white diver whose working days are numbered by the physical toll of his job. The two dream of buying a concession, a piece of land where diamonds can be mined. All they need is the cash.

[For the record at 3:56 p.m.: A previous version of this post identified Antony Hagopian’s first name as Anthony.]

Enter retired investment banker Smith (Ned Schmidtke), a genial if entitled widower on a walkabout. Over wine and classical music, Thami and Johan ask Smith to invest in their scheme for a percentage of the returns. When Smith dismisses the concession as a government swindle, the two working-class men resort to more extreme measures of securing funding.

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It’s not a terribly surprising turn of events, but director Kyle Donnelly and her creative team weave an absorbing yarn. “Groundswell” works well in the round at the intimate White Theatre, where you’re only a few feet away from the quicksilver feints, shifts in allegiance and one very sharp knife.

The flaws are evident from this distance too. The play takes its time gearing up; not even the quirky taxidermied animals on Kate Edmunds’ set, or the eerie sound design of Lindsay Jones can entirely distract us from Bruce’s lumbering exposition. The actors are powerful, but still discovering their character’s subtleties. Yet the playwright makes us feel the guilt and fear that possess all three men, survivors of a system that has left each of them, in radically different ways, disenfranchised. As a case study in the corrosive impact of racial inequality, “Groundswell” is exemplary. As a nail-biter, it could learn a bit more from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

[For the record at 11:25 a.m. An earlier version of this review included the wrong name for the set designer.]

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Groundswell” The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 17. $29-$67. Contact: (619) 23-GLOBE or www.TheOldGlobe.org. Running time: 90 minutes.

[For the record at 3:56 p.m.: A previous version of this post omitted photographer J. Katarzyna Woronowicz’s first initial.]


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