Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souleymane Sy Savane in Groundswell
(© The New Group)
Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury,
and Souleymane Sy Savane in Groundswell
(© The New Group)
There was a time when plays set in South Africa could be counted upon to be stirring, dramatic calls for the end of apartheid. But Ian Bruce's admirable, modern-day play Groundswell, now being presented by the New Group, represents a new breed of South African theater -- one that is no longer a call to action but, rather, a call for self-examination.

While the work -- deftly directed by Scott Elliott and featuring the exceptional trio of Larry Bryggman, David Lansbury, and Souleymane Sy Savane -- is kept afloat by a considerable amount of melodrama, it is nevertheless a remarkably even-handed account of the seemingly intractable problems facing this historically tragic nation.

Indeed, each character has a history that cuts to the heart of South Africa's current social and political dilemmas. Thami (Savane) is a low-paid guest lodge employee in a backwater diamond-mining district, trying to make enough money to get his family out of Cape Town. His best friend, Johan (Lansbury), a former policeman, is a diamond diver. Johan is also a man prone to violence and has a dark stain in his past that Thami has nonetheless forgiven.

Thami and Johan have dreams of owning their own diamond mine, which is possible if they can raise the necessary capital to get it off the ground. Into their lives comes a rich, older white man named Smith (Bryggman), and the two partners quickly agree to offer him an equity position in their budding business if he will pony up the money they need.

The play brazenly telescopes its plot with the introduction in the very first scene of a monster knife, making the threat of violence very much in the air. In addition, Thami makes a very big point to Johan not to drink when they approach Smith at dinner that night. Sure enough, Johan secretly starts to guzzle huge amounts of wine during dinner -- and it's only a matter of time before that knife will be brandished. Indeed, everything you think is going to happen in the play happens -- except the ending of the play, which is intelligent and valid.

What raises this play above the commonplace, however, are the impassioned speeches each of these characters eventually have the opportunity to make. Smith's speech is impassioned and compelling; Thami's speech, which is about what he wants out of his life, is surprisingly shocking; and Johan's bitter speech expresses the bloody glue that once bound the ruling class to the downtrodden underclass and still haunts the nation with an everlasting guilt.