In 1940's Mexico, an ex-minister, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, has been locked out of his church after characterizing the Western image of God as a "senile delinquent", during one of his sermons. Shannon is not de-frocked, but he is institutionalized for a "nervous breakdown". Some time after his release, the Rev. Shannon obtains employment as a tour guide for a second-rate travel agency. Shortly before the opening of the play, Shannon is accused of having committed statutory rape of a sixteen year old girl, named Charlotte Goodall, who is accompanying his current group of tourists.
As the curtain rises, Shannon is arriving with a group of women at a cheap hotel on the coast of Mexico that had been managed by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk. The former has recently died, and Maxine Faulk has assumed sole responsibility for managing the establishment.
Struggling emotionally, Shannon tries to manage his tour party, who have turned against him for entering into sexual relations with the minor, and Maxine, who is interested in him for purely carnal reasons. Adding to this chaotic scenario, a spinster Hannah Jelkes appears with her moribund grandfather, Nonno, who, despite his failing health, is composing his last poem. Jelkes, who scrapes by as traveling painter and sketch artist, is soon at Maxine's mercy. Shannon, who wields considerable influence over Maxine, offers Hannah Jelkes shelter for the night. The play's main axis is the development of the deeply human bond between Hannah Jelkes and Lawrence Shannon.
Minor characters in the play include: (a) a group of German tourists whose Nazi marching songs paradoxically lighten the heavier themes of the play but suggest the horrors of World War II, (b) the Mexican "boys" Maxine employs to help run the hotel who ignore her laconic commands, and (c) Judith Fellowes, the "butch" vocal teacher charged with Charlotte's care during the trip. Fellowes is one of Williams' few overtly lesbian characters.
The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon was partly based on Williams' cousin and close friend, The Reverend Sidney Lanier, the iconoclastic Rector of St Clement's Episcopal Church, New York. Lanier was a significant figure in the New York theatre scene in the 1950/60s, started a Ministry to the Theatre Arts and would become co-founder of the experimental American Place Theatre in 1962. Lanier resigned from his ministry in May 1965.