Review: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (Blyth Festival)

by Lynn on August 25, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario. Written by Cheryl Foggo and Clem Martini. Designed by Gillian Gallow. Lighting by Rebecca Picherack. Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne. Starring: Tiffany Martin, Tony Munch and Meghan Swaby.

The Devil We Know is a rip-roaring thriller with a touch of social commentary. Vivian and Verna are teenaged sisters. Verna is the commanding forceful one. Vivian is fragile. She has a limp and drags her foot due to a bout of polio. She uses crutches to get around. She has a heart condition as well that prevents her from going to school. Verna brings home Vivian’s homework so that she can keep up. Their parents have worked hard all their lives and saved enough to buy that house. Their father is a handyman who keeps the house in good repair. The family is black but that does not really factor into this story, except for background and subtle social commentary.

There is a killer on the loose. A man was found with his throat cut and the police have no leads and every one is terrified. It’s a small town. People wonder who did it. And lock their doors.

Vivian is home alone in her bedroom when she is surprised by a man who quietly walks into her room and is just as startled to see her there, as she is. He says he’s a repair man that her father arranged. Vivian is a smart kid and knows that’s not true. His name is Walter and yes, he’s the killer.

He’s had a hard life and only wants a little break in his bad luck. His mother didn’t love him and told him so. He led a life of petty crime. He hooked up with a guy who boasted of having buried some ‘treasure’—two boxes of gold coins–years ago in the very house in which Vivian and her family are living. The man with the treasure owned the house years before. Walter knows the money is buried in a cupboard or perhaps some room that is closed off. In any case Vivian doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Walter gets agitated. He was agitated when the guy with the treasure told him about the treasure but not the exact place it was buried. A fight ensured and Walter killed the guy by slashing his throat.

Matters get fraught with Vivian. Verna comes home during lunch hour to find out if Vivian is ok but is not let into the house. They talk through the bedroom window. Walter is there after all and Vivian is told to get rid of her. Verna is also street smart and knows that Vivian is in trouble so she (Verna) climbs up into the bedroom window to find out what’s up.

As Walter goes through the house, rapping on walls to find a hollow sounding one and thus the space where the money is buried, Verna and Vivian try to figure out how to overpower Walter. But it’s too late. He sees both sisters and ties them up.

White knuckle time. Walter gets more agitated as he searches in vain for the money. He prepares to take it out on the sisters. The sisters are frantically trying to get untied and overpower him. They struggle.

Forgive me, I can’t go on with any more of the story. It’s too gripping. You will have to see it for yourself.

Suffice it to say director Eric Coates knows how to take his audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. We know Walter will come in to that house somehow. Will it be through that open window as the breeze delicately billows the curtains? Will it be simply through that slightly open door to the bedroom? I keep looking first at the window and then the door. I know he will appear and even when I know that, it’s still a surprise when he does.

Coates then ratchets up the tension with the two girls frantically squirming in their chairs where they are tied up, and desperately trying to get their hands free, while Walter’s impatience and raging temper flare when he can’t find the money.

As Vivian, Tiffany Martin is tall, lanky and delicately drags her affected leg behind her as she navigates her small room on crutches. She shows us a smart kid who knows how to keep her cool when times get fraught. This is a tempered performance of a kid who knows she is in danger and has to keep her assailant, Walter, as calm as possible. As Walter, Tony Munch is a stocky bull of a man. Angry, ground down with disappointment and typical of a person who has not had the benefit of kindness and affection. Munch’s careful, thoughtful performance makes Walter both frightening and sad. As Verna, Meghan Swaby tends towards the hysterical and loud, when a bit more calm and lower voice would be helpful. It serves no purpose to bellow everything, even what should be a whisper if you don’t want other people besides your sister to hear you. Swaby’s characterization would work better with less volume.

On the whole Cheryl Froggo and Clem Martini have written a gripping thriller, and Eric Coates and company have delivered a knuckle-clenching production. Be careful not to mess the seat too much doing the show.

THE DEVIL WE KNOW plays at the Blyth Festival until September 1.

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