Grounded in the Poconos

1812 Productions and Delaware Theatre Company present Bruce Graham’s The Flatlanders

4 minute read
Childs stands next to Greer, who huddles in an armchair. They both wear thick hats, coats, and scarves indoors.

Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) closes its season with The Flatlanders by Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham, a script that seldom gets off the ground. The show, given as fine a production as possible by director Matt Pfeiffer, opens with the sound of a snowstorm and an overly cheery AM radio host playing music from the 1960s and 1970s. Outside a locked front door, Ronnie (Jennifer Childs) and Michael (Scott Greer) are attempting to get into an empty house. When they finally succeed, we learn that their car has careened down an icy mountainside and they are stranded.

The two Philadelphians (urban “flatlanders,” the locals’ name for city folk), who have been together for 14 years, are expected at a special event: their long-discussed wedding and celebratory dinner. While they dither about whether they should tie the knot (they’ve been together for “the seven-year itch times two”) they try to warm up and work to warm up the audience. Exploring their rented house for matches and food, they find some comic paraphernalia. But the question remains: will their relationship survive this storm?

Dimension wanted

Producing artistic director Matt Silva has packed his production with impressive talent and lots of Philadelphians in the company. This show is a co-production with 1812, a comedy company co-founded by Childs, where it premiered earlier this season. Along with Greer and Pfeiffer, playwright Graham has won a slew of prestigious awards, grants, and Barrymores.

Flatlanders, however, is much slimmer than this track record suggests. The actors are tasked with exploring the same situation over and over, which they do with ample skill, but Graham doesn’t offer them a lot of dramatic options. Pfeiffer works diligently to add dimension to the piece, but unfortunately, the show sometimes lives up to its name.

Colin McIlvaine’s set has the perfect seldom-used aura of a vacation home, cold and under-decorated. It serves the text, but the mandated setting lacks any visual richness. Sound (Christopher Colucci) and lights (Alyssandra Docherty) are similar in tone, perfectly evoking a chilly atmosphere that Childs and Greer work valiantly to overcome.

When the lights went down

But an unusual opening-night happening added unexpected heat to the production. About 15 minutes into the show, the house lights came up and the stage went dark. Then the entire theater went black, except for glowing exit lights. At first, a surprised audience wondered if this was part of the show, but a voice urged everyone to stay in their seats while the problem was fixed. Kudos to stage manager Liz Forrester who kept the audience calm—there was not a ripple of anxiety in the crowd—and to DTC staffers, who appeared brandishing flashlights and phone lights.

At right, Greer shrieks and drops a steaming pot next to a blue couch and broken coffee table. Childs hurries toward him.
Kerfuffle onstage and off: Jennifer Childs and Scott Greer in ‘The Flatlanders’ at DTC. (Photo by Matt Urban, NüPOINT Marketing.)

It might indeed have been cause for alarm, especially if anyone had (like me) seen Deathtrap the week before. But good-humoredly taking the reins, Silva invited Graham to join him at the foot of the darkened stage, noting that “luckily, our playwright is also a stand-up comic.” And that turned out to be true. For 15 minutes, Graham worked the audience like the pro he obviously is. He took questions, quipped, joked, and told stories, relaxing the audience as he also fed them some background about the play.

The printed program had no director’s notes or blurb that locates time and place, so we learned from Graham about Flatlanders’s genesis. The script’s radio station was a satiric portrayal of one that he’s listened to on frequent trips to the Poconos, and he is the disembodied voice of its annoying deejay. Graham wrote this play specifically for Childs and Greer, mates in life as well as onstage, when in 2020 they asked for a script that would keep them working in Philadelphia.

A memorable interruption

Because of this technical glitch, to truly assess either the Flatlanders script or the actors’ performances (which deepened as the evening progressed), I’d need to attend the play again. But as theatrical balance was restored (darkness in the house and lights onstage), we knew things that enhanced the formulaic plot. When the play opened, Childs and Greer portrayed differing (and tiring) levels of one-dimensional freneticism. But after the technical mishap, there was a marked change. Bonded by seeing the show get back on track, and Graham’s insights, both actors and audience had a totally different energy.

Most presenters wouldn’t wish for something like this to happen on opening night, but it was kind of a gift to the audience. You could feel a new sense of camaraderie in the house, and afterward, the lobby was buzzing with excited chatter from people who had just experienced firsthand what theater folk mean when they invoke that old saw, “The show must go on.”

At top: Jennifer Childs and Scott Greer in The Flatlanders at DTC. (Photo by Matt Urban, NüPOINT Marketing.)

What, When, Where

Flatlanders. By Bruce Graham, directed by Matt Pfeiffer. $32-$75. Through May 5, 2024, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or


There will be an ASL-interpreted performance of Flatlanders on Saturday, April 27, at 2pm.

DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue (notify the box office for wheelchair seating), with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available.

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