The play is set in Russia, in the late 1800's. Act I opens at dawn, in the month of May, inside Madame Ranevsky's estate. The acts are not divided into scenes, although the entrances and exits of different characters delineate distinct moments of action.
Lopakhin, a wealthy neighbor, and Dunyasha, a maid, are waiting for Madame Ranevsky, her daughter Anya, and their companions to return to their cherry orchard estate from France, where they have spent five years. The room they are in is called the nursery. Dunyasha and Lopakhin begin by discussing the tardiness of the trains, and Lopakhin recounts his childhood memories of Madame Ranevsky, who once brought Lopakhin, then a serf's son, into the main house, after his father struck him, to care for him and to wash him. After Lopakhin's speech, Dunyasha expresses her anxiety at the return of the family.
Ephikhodof, a clumsy clerk infatuated with pretentious Dunyasha, enters the nursery with a nosegay, his boots squeaking the whole way. Lopakhin sends Dunyasha for a drink, and he and Ephikhodof have a brief and comic discussion on the weather and squeaky boots. Dunyasha re-enters, and Ephikhodof falls over her on his way out. Dunyasha confesses to Lopakhin that Ephikhodof has proposed to her. Lopakhin is not interested, but Dunyasha goes on to explain her feelings; she is fond of the clerk's personality, but not his clumsiness, and she does not know what to do.
Madame Ranevsky finally arrives, bringing her daughters Barbara and Anya, her brother Gayef, Anya's governess Charlotte, and Pishtchik, a neighbor, along with her. Madame Ranevsky cries, as she often does. After a brief moment of welcome-home chaos, the stage is empty except for Anya and Dunyasha, who grew up together. Dunyasha tries to discuss Ephikhodof, but only captures Anya's attention by mentioning that Trophimof, the tutor of Anya's deceased younger brother Grisha, is in the house. Barbara, the older daughter, enters with an enormous ring of keys at her waist. Dunyasha leaves to make coffee, and the sisters reunite. Barbara is also a crier, and she cries with happiness at seeing Anya, and then with distress as Anya describes the family's financial problems. Madame Ranevsky, used to living the luxurious life, is spending money she does not have, and now the family cannot pay the interest on the mortgage; the cherry orchard will be sold in August. Lopakhin enters during this tense moment, moos like a cow at Barbara, and exits. Barbara hopes to marry Lopakhin, and society expects it. She confesses to Anya that he has not proposed, and begins crying again. She announces that she wants to become a pilgrim.
Dunyasha returns with coffee; Yasha, Madame Ranevsky's social-climbing servant, enters with bags. He does not recognize Dunyasha; when she tells him her name, he embraces her, calls her a "little cucumber," and chases her around the room. Dunyasha squeals in delight and Yasha runs out before Barbara can reprimand him.
Anya ponders the significance of tutor Trophimof's return. She briefly describes the death of her father six years early, followed shortly by the death of her younger brother, who drowned at age seven. These events prompted Madame Ranevsky to go abroad and forget her misfortunes, and Anya reflects that Trophimof, who was her brother Grisha's tutor, might remind Madame Ravensky of the tragedy.
After Anya's reflections, Firs, a former serf and present servant, enters the scene. He is talking to himself, for he is half deaf and of questionable sanity. Although he is not quite communicating with anyone else on stage, one can tell he is delighted at his mistress's return, and his comments, as usual, are nostalgic and focus on events of years gone by. He proclaims that now that he has seen his mistress Madame Ranevsky come home, he is ready to die, a comment which clearly illustrates the old social order in Russia.
Madame Ravensky, her brother Gayef, and neighbors Pishtchik and Lopakhin enter. Gayef pretends he is playing billiards, his trademark behavior. Anya says good night and exits. Firs waits on Madame Ranevsky and Barbara suggests that the guests go home. Madame Ranevsky thanks Firs profusely and starts crying again, with joy. Firs responds to her thanks with completely unrelated comments, due to his hearing problems. Pishtchik and Lopakhin begin complimenting Madame Ranevsky. Lopakhin goes on to complain about Gayef, who thinks Lopakhin a snob, and insists he loves Madame Ranevsky dearly. Madame Ranevsky is excited and begins kissing the furniture; Gayef breaks the mood by telling her of members of the household that have died in her absence. Madame Ranevsky already knows, but her reaction is interesting. She becomes very quiet and still, with none of her usual drama. This change in her behavior emphasizes her flaws as a character; she is a creature of positive excess reacting with more emotion to the furniture of her home than to the death of her old friends.
Lopakhin is about to leave, and he changes the subject with his plan to save Madame Ranevsky's estate from auction: if she cuts down the cherry orchard and the old house, she can build villas, sell them to the nouveau rich, pay off the interest, and make a profit. Madame Ranevsky and Gayef do not understand the suggestion. Pishtchik changes the subject by asking Madame Ranevsky about Paris.
Barbara enters with Yasha and two telegrams for her mother from Paris; Madame Ranevsky tears them up dramatically; Gayef then announces that the cupboard in the room is one hundred years old. Pishtchik acts astonished, which encourages Gayef to embarrass himself, which he does frequently. He gets on his knees and recites a dramatic and ridiculous ode to the cupboard, while the rest of the company looks on, embarrassed for him and astonished. When he realizes how foolish he looks, he begins playing imaginary billiards again. Pishtchik saves the mood by swallowing an entire box of pills: although his act is equally foolish as Gayef's speech, everyone finds it wildly entertaining. Firs continues to mumble, and Charlotte, the governess enters. She is a strange personality; a social misfit. She teases Lopakhin, refuses to do a conjuring trick, and goes off to bed. Lopakhin says his good-byes. Pishtchik asks Madame Ranevsky for a loan to pay his mortgage, despite the fact that he knows perfectly well that she cannot pay her own; she refuses him. Firs fusses over Gayef's clothes, and Barbara discover Anya asleep. Gayef and Madame Ranevsky look out over the orchard and reminisce.
Trophimof enters in shabby student clothes to greet Madame Ranevsky. At first she appears to not know him, so he explains himself as her deceased son's tutor; then she suddenly throws her arms around and beings to cry. She is not crying in happiness, but rather mourning for her son. She is startled to see that he has grown old, and a brief discussion of age follows; the subject irks Madame Ranevsky, but it does not seem to bother Trophimof. Pishtchik and Gayef begin to say their goodnights, and Pishtchik once again asks Madame Ranevsky for a loan to pay his own mortgage. This time she agrees, and despite a brief protest on his part, Gayef also concedes the money to Pishtchik. As Madame Ranevsky, Trophimof, Pishtchik, and Firs leave, Barbara announces to Yasha that his mother wants to see him. Yasha complains bitterly about this visit; as he exits, and Gayef discusses the family's financial problems with his nieces, referring to a distant aunt as an obscure source of economic hope. Gayef continues to describe what a small hope it is; in his opinion, the aunt, although wealthy, would disapprove of Madame Ranevsky's "sinful" life. Through his rather harsh criticisms of his own sister, another example of indirect action, we learn that Madame Ranevsky married beneath her aristocratic station, and, upon the death of her husband, became another man's mistress. Anya, one of the play's two idealists, is hurt by Gayef's words against her mother; Gayef is instantly shamed, and tries (rather ungracefully) to wriggle out of the situation by changing the subject. He bemoans the way his own words constantly embarrass him, as they did with his speech to the cupboard. He swears on his honor that he will do all he can to save the property, and says goodnight. Barbara drags a sleepy Anya towards her room; Trophimof enters to watch them leave and, as Anya disappears from stage, whispers after her "My sunshine! My spring!"
The Cherry Orchard focuses on the tensions of changing times. For example, the room in Act I is called a nursery, although it has held no baby for years, and this misnomer introduces a nostalgic atmosphere into Madame Ranevsky's house. This tension between what was and what is centers on different levels. One level, personal tragedy, is very specific, and the death of Madame Ranevsky's son Grisha five years before the start of the play is one example. On another level, the play centers on the complications with major changes in an entire society: the recent freedom of the serfs and the decaying power of the aristocracy are two more general aspects of Russian history which affect the play.
Lopakhin's first speech is important because it immediately introduces this theme of Russia's newfound class mobility. In 1861, the system of serfdom was ended in Russia, and although this event happened perhaps fifteen years before Act I, it drives the action of the play. Lopakhin himself points out the irony in the situation developing in Russia; Lopakhin, born a serf, is now a wealthy, well-dressed landowner, calling on his aristocratic neighbor, Madame Ranevsky, as an equal. Despite his financial success, he still refers to himself as "a peasant of the peasants," noting a difference between himself, a nouveau rich, and the aristocratic members of the upper class. This speech introduces an ambiguity in Lopakhin's character which can only be resolved in a performance of the play; it is unclear from the text alone whether Lopakhin feels love, respect, and gratitude towards Madame Ranevsky and her family, or whether he harbors some resentment towards this household that held his father and grandfather as slaves. All of the characters in the play possess a similar ambiguity, which can only be alleviated by a director's choice.
Not only are Lopakhin's intentions unclear from the text alone, but he interacts with the other characters in very complicated ways, due, in part, to his own change in class. Although Lopakhin revels in his own economic transformation, he chides Dunyasha for not remembering her place in society, acting too much like a lady when she is only a maid. The close chronology between these two moments at the very opening of the play creates a tension about class differences which pervades the entire play. Dunyasha and Lopakhin come from similar, lower class backgrounds; however, Lopakhin has been able to fulfill his aspirations and rise through the class system, while Dunyasha is still trying. Lopakhin can easily be portrayed as a hypocrite for moments like his criticism of Dunyasha.
Ephikhodof, the next character to enter, is something of a clown, and his entrances are sources of comedy. Although he is an extreme example, he is not unlike the rest of the characters in the play: they are all ridiculous in some way. Even Barbara, who seems so stern, can be portrayed as a parody. Her keys, for example, are often as enormous as they are loud, depending on the performance. These keys are attached to her throughout the play, and they are a symbol of her authority in the household; her practicality and her sense of duty are both her biggest strengths and her most ridiculous qualities. While the sight and sound of her keys are a symbol of her power, they are also an unwieldy and ridiculous object. Barbara and her keys stand in sharp contrast to the younger sister, Anya, one of the play's two idealists. Anya is a charismatic character because she is both capable of being appalled at her mother's extravagant spending, and capable of forgiving her every flaw. She may appear more comic in later acts, when she and Trophimof, the other idealist, voice their philosophies.
Anya's criticism of her mother's overspending in France is important because it is one of The Cherry Orchard's many examples of indirect action, a technique Chekhov is famous for. The action described in the speech has not taken place on the stage, and is therefore indirect; the play revolves around the character's on-stage reactions to such off-stage action, for although this sort of action is not seen, it actually drives the plot. Lopakhin's opening speech is another example of indirect action, which both informs the audience of the past and maneuvers the development of the action.
Firs is a highly symbolic character, for as the oldest character, he is a remnant of the past. He spent almost his entire life as a serf on the estate. Freedom has not changed his life as it has changed Lopakhin's; although neither is a serf now, Firs is old and has nowhere else to go, so he stays on in the household as he always has, while Lopakhin has become independent and wealthy. The two of them reflect two different sides of the Russian serfs' freedom; together on stage, they create rather a complete picture of the fate of the old serfs, while Madame Ranevsky and her brother Gayef illustrate the fate of the old aristocracy. Madame Ranevsky's often comically joyful tirades on her homeland and her family demonstrate that she is a woman of excess. This excessiveness is both her most charismatic trait and her greatest weakness; she too is a ridiculous character. The contrast in her reactions to seeing her furniture again and the reality of he acquaintances' deaths implies early on in the play that this woman is completely incapable of dealing with difficulty; she ignores problems and constantly exaggerates her abilities and her emotions to create a perfectly happy world for herself.
For Madame Ranevsky and Gayef, cutting the cherry orchard down is not an option: the estate is too important. Their inability to comprehend the sense of Lopakhin's lucrative suggestion implies that they are two characters of the old aristocracy who cannot change with the changing times. They do not understand that if they do not cut down the orchard, it will go to auction and whoever buys it will cut it down anyway. Pishtchik is another character who does not seem capable of adapting and saving himself. He feeds off of others; he knows Madame Ranevsky has her own financial problems, yet he insists on asking her for money, complimenting her and goading her until she agrees. Madame Ranevsky agrees because of her own fundamental flaw, her excessiveness; she continues to live the life of a wealthy woman even as her assets dwindle. Even Gayef, the bumbling social idiot, can criticize her for this behavior, although he is too weak to stop her. Yasha is similar to Pishtchik in the way he feeds off Madame Ranevsky. His behavior with regards to his mother demonstrates his own flaw as a character. He has not seen his mother for five years, and he is more concerned with himself and impressing the family he serves than he is with visiting his own mother. Although he and Pishtchik both have charismatic moments on stage, they are both fundamentally parasites who frequent the cherry orchard for the purpose of benefiting from Madame Ranevsky's weak control of her purse.
Charlotte and Trophimof are the two final characters who appear onstage in this act. Each appears only briefly. They are both outsiders, and it is therefore appropriate they neither is fully integrated into the action until a later act.