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Photograph by Kevin Berne
SCHEMERS: Thami (Dwight Huntsman, left) and Johan (Scott Coopwood) try to talk Smith (Peter Van Norden, center) into a diamond investment.

Faceted Drama

Set in South Africa, S.J. Rep's 'Groundswell' raises questions of race and apartheid

By Jessica Fromm

ANSWERS are not handed to the audience in Groundswell, San Jose Repertory Theatre's newest, a psychological thriller about race relations, desperation and reparations in the post-apartheid world. In its second stateside production, South African playwright Ian Bruce's volatile tale centering on his country's tragic legacy is as challenging and heavy as theater gets. Fortunately, Groundswell never seems to buckle underneath its own weight. Under the direction of the Rep's former associate artistic director, Kirsten Brandt, the tension between the play's trio of troubled characters is palpable, slowly building in complexity and intensity during the single act until it explodes and emotions come out like knives.

The setting is the Garnet Lodge, a remote beachside hotel on the African continent's foggy west coast. Black gardener and off-season manager Thami (Dwight Huntsman) and white ex-cop-turned-handyman Johan (Scott Coopwood) run the place while the owners are away. Living apart from his family and desperate to pull them out of the slum, Thami has cooked up a get-rich-quick scheme with Johan involving the local diamond industry. All they need is an investor, and when retired banker Smith (Peter Van Norden) passes through by chance, they believe their dreams are finally in reach, if only they can persuade him to hand over a starter check. A drifter and part-time diamond diver, the unstable Johan decides to come over for dinner with their wealthy guest to convince him to put some money in their venture.

As the blustery, foggy night wears on and the drinks come out, the dark past of the long divided South African nation, and all three men, comes to light. Old wounds are opened and deep secrets are revealed as the anxiety of their dire situation builds to a climax. Providing ominous atmosphere, a port bell tolls and the wind howls in the background of this resort lobby set, thanks to sound designer Steve Schoenbeck and scenic designer John Iacovelli.

Although Groundswell was a replacement for Joe Penhall's Landscape With Weapon, which fell through last summer when the rights were optioned for a film version, artistic director Rick Lombardo made a superb choice with this selection. The events of this play take place far away, but the subject matter of race and resentment still stings here for American audiences. Van Norden's Smith is a deeply complex character, and his performance is the strongest of this outstandingly well-acted production. On the outside Smith is just looking for a place to play a good round of golf, but on the inside he is deeply bitter over having been forced into retirement when his high-level investment job was handed to a black man. A leftover from South Africa's white aristocracy, his character is probably the most relatable to the San Jose Rep's audience. You could hear a pin drop during Van Norden's emotional speech when Smith finally breaks down.

Coopwood, whose credits seem to be predominantly Shakespearean, is first-rate in his sweating, unhinged portrayal of Johan, a man with nothing to lose looking for redemption for the deadly wrongs of his past. Huntsman's Thami is the only innately good character of the three, but he still does not intervene in Johan's escalating violent behavior if there is a possibility of getting the funds he needs. In the end, Groundswell is a first-rate production that will open up audience dialogue about much more than South Africa's apartheid.

GROUNDSWELL, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday at 11am (Oct. 21 only) and 8pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 8 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $35 and up. (408.367.7255)

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