THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
STAGE REVIEW

Simmering in a post-apartheid world

Richard McElvain (left) and Timothy John Smith in the Lyric Stage Company’s “Groundswell.’’ Richard McElvain (left) and Timothy John Smith in the Lyric Stage Company’s “Groundswell.’’ (The Lyric Stage Company of Boston)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 5, 2010

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‘Look at what you’re doing!’’ one character barks at another early in “Groundswell,’’ with what seems like outsized fury. “You’re pointing your finger at me!’’

We will learn later on about the deadly episode in his past that makes a white ex-policeman named Johan react so strongly to a seemingly innocuous gesture by his friend, Thami, who is black.

But it’s an apt metaphor for the accusations and recriminations that heat up the stage in South African playwright Ian Bruce’s searing drama about the social costs, individual responsibilities, and lingering moral debts stemming from the longtime system of racial subjugation known as apartheid.

Except for that angry exchange over the pointed finger, the 90-minute “Groundswell,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at Lyric Stage Company, gets off to a sluggish start that may have audience members glancing at their watches.

However, the pace soon quickens and the tensions rise when a retired white businessman named Smith (Richard McElvain) arrives at the small hotel on South Africa’s west coast where Thami is employed as a caretaker and gardener and Johan sometimes works as a handyman.

Johan (Timothy John Smith) and Thami (Jason Bowen) immediately hatch a scheme: They will talk the affluent Smith into investing in their plan to buy part of an abandoned diamond mine that is being auctioned off by the South African government. Thami has a kind and gentle nature, but the thuggish Johan, as it turns out, is willing to do more than just talk, especially when he has a few drinks in him.

Thami desperately wants the diamond concession so he can escape from near-poverty and make enough money to improve circumstances for his family (his wife and children languish in a shack in a distant city). Johan’s motives seem to be a murky blend of greed and a desire to write a new chapter in what has been a troubled life story.

In any case, he makes it clear to Thami that, if need be, they will play upon Smith’s presumed sense of white guilt by telling him the details of Thami’s separation from his family and of the tragic disappearance of Thami’s father during the apartheid era. There is a whiff here of Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker,’’ with its two-against-one dynamic, and also of the hard-sell, predator-circling-prey atmosphere of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.’’

Yet Smith proves to be not exactly crippled by guilt. In fact, he turns out to be a quivering bundle of resentment. He refers snidely to “the new dispensation’’ of post-apartheid South Africa, and denounces “this government’s shaky schemes’’ of diamond-fed empowerment. Though he says he contributed greatly to charities and supported the anti-apartheid cause, he now spits out the phrase “affirmative action’’ as if it were an epithet. He has been pressured into an early retirement, his wife has died, his adult children have left the country.

When he turns the men down, “Groundswell’’ moves into a new key and onto complicated ground. Johan ratchets up the pressure, both verbal and physical, and frames the issue as one of “compensation’’ for the wrongs of apartheid. “He has to pay up, one way or another,’’ Johan tells Thami, while Smith looks on in dismay. “He owes you.’’ Johan is an imperfect messenger, to put it mildly, but it is intriguing to see how he builds a case for reparations from one man for a collective wrong, however venal and self-serving Johan’s reasons may be.

As Johan, Timothy John Smith (last seen at the Lyric in a very different vein as the comically bombastic general in “Kiss Me, Kate’’) projects an aura of menace throughout “Groundswell.’’ It is a powerful and often riveting performance, but a bit of modulation might enhance its effectiveness. If Johan showed a trace of charm at the beginning, when he is trying to persuade Smith to join the diamond-mine enterprise, you wouldn’t wonder why the businessman doesn’t flee the hotel rather than chat with his hulking, leather-jacketed, altogether scary dinner partner.

As Smith, the businessman, McElvain is just superb. He gives Smith a strange “Rrr-rrr-rrr’’ laugh and a watery-eyed, ineffectual demeanor, making it all the more startling when bitterness and grief pour out of him as he spells out details of his own personal loss. Bowen (recently seen in the Huntington Theatre Company’s “A Civil War Christmas’’) captures the caught-in-the-middle vulnerability of Thami, though the playwright has not developed the character as fully as the other two. At least not until the end, when Thami proves that he is more resourceful than either of the white men may have suspected.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

GROUNDSWELL

Play by: Ian Bruce

Directed by Daniel Gidron

Lights, Margo Caddell. Sets, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Seth Bodie.

At: Lyric Stage Company. Through Jan. 30. Tickets $25-$50, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

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