The setting is Pawhuska, Oklahoma, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, in August of 2007. The play begins with an extended monologue from the patriarch of the Weston family, Beverly. The house is a "rambling country house" that is "more than a century old." On the first floor are three "playing areas," a dining room, living room, and study. On the second floor is a landing with a cushioned window seat. On the third floor is an attic.
Beverly starts out by saying "Life is very long," a quote which he says is often attributed to T.S. Eliot. He then talks about the fact that Eliot had the "purity of the survivor's instinct," but that he himself has "a greater affinity with the damaged." We hear Violet Weston, Beverly's wife, cursing to herself offstage, and Beverly explains that she's addicted to pills. "My wife takes pills and I drink," he says, adding, "The reasons why we partake are anymore inconsequential." He quotes the poet John Berryman frequently, and alludes to the fact that he wants to die.
Johnna, the 26-year-old housekeeper, hands Beverly a handkerchief as he explains that Violet does not believe in air conditioning, which is why it's so hot. Johnna says her father, Mr. Youngbird, was the same, and Beverly tells her that he knew her father, bought watermelons and roman candles from him. Johnna tells Beverly that her father died of a heart attack. Beverly asks her about her name, and Johnna tells him that her last name, Monevata, is the family name in the original indigenous language.
Violet calls to Beverly and we see her on the landing upstairs, smoking a Winston and barely able to string together a sentence. Beverly asks her to come downstairs, which she does, and he introduces her to Johnna, the new housekeeper. Violet speaks to Johnna, telling her she's pretty and stumbling a little. When Beverly tells her to go back to bed, she snaps at him, "Why don't you go fuck a fucking sow's ass?"
When Violet leaves, Beverly discusses with Johnna the fact that she is particularly qualified for the job, having worked briefly on a nursing certificate. He tells her that the hours at the Weston house are unusual and it is unlikely she'll be able to maintain a healthy routine. He tells Johnna that Violet has been diagnosed with "a touch of cancer"—mouth cancer—and will have to be taken to Tulsa for chemotherapy. He then rattles off a long list of the pills that Violet takes and informs Johnna that Violet has no interest in getting clean, having sought treatment before, but relapsed. Beverly hands her a book of T.S. Eliot poems and tells her it's for her enjoyment if she wants to read it.
Act 1. Scene 1. Ivy Weston (Beverly and Violet's daughter), Mattie Fae (Violet's sister), and Charlie (Mattie Fae's husband), are in the living room. Mattie Fae is drinking scotch, Charlie is watching a baseball game, Violet talks on the telephone, and Johnna is cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. Beverly is missing. Mattie Fae is talking about how Beverly has done this before, bragging that she introduced Beverly and Violet.
"You did not introduce them," Charlie corrects her, clarifying that Mattie Fae had a date with Beverly and didn't like him, so set him up with Violet instead. Mattie Fae begins teasing Charlie about the fact that he doesn't read, and he defends himself by reminding her that Beverly was a teacher, but he's in the upholstery business. "Beverly was a very complicated man," Mattie Fae says, and Charlie tells her to stop talking in the past tense.
Charlie and Mattie Fae compare Beverly to Little Charles, their son. Charlie thinks that Little Charles is like his uncle, but Mattie Fae insists, "Little Charles isn't complicated, he's just unemployed." Mattie Fae insists that Little Charles isn't very smart, and they question Ivy about how long Beverly and Violet have been putting up the shades on the windows. She tells them it's been a couple of years since they started doing that.
Charlie gets even more confused when he sees an Eric Clapton record, wondering if Violet is an Eric Clapton fan. Just then, Violet comes in and says that the sheriff has seen no sign of Beverly, and that Beverly's pontoon boat is missing. Charlie wonders if Beverly didn't use the trailer to take the boat away, but Mattie Fae says she saw the trailer outside the house. When Charlie asks Johnna for a beer, Mattie Fae scolds him, telling him that Johnna isn't a waitress, but she gets him a beer. Mattie Fae and Charlie go into the kitchen to see what's cooking.
On the landing, Violet and Ivy discuss the fact that Ivy's sister, Barbara, is coming down with her husband Bill and daughter Jean from Boulder. As she takes pills, Violet gets angry about the fact that Beverly has left her with the house, which is falling apart, all the bills, and Johnna. Violet says that Barbara is the only daughter who will be able to help, then tells Ivy that she is pretty, but dresses like a schlub and should wear makeup. "The only woman who was pretty enough to go without makeup was Elizabeth Taylor, and she wore a ton," Violet adds.
Violet talks to Ivy about the fact that she should find a husband, even though Ivy insists she doesn't want one. As Violet suggests that she find someone at the college library she works at, Ivy insists that she already dated an environmental studies professor, Barry, but it didn't work out. Ivy scolds her mother about smoking while suffering from mouth cancer, and as they begin gossiping about Mattie Fae and Charlie (who Violet says smokes "a lot of grass") the mother and daughter begin to laugh and have fun with each other. Ivy asks Violet about the Clapton record and Violet tells her she likes the beat.
Meanwhile, Barbara and her husband, Bill, arrive outside. Bill tells her that their daughter, Jean, who is 14, is smoking outside. Barbara tells Bill about the fact that Violet bought parakeets and they all died within days because she refused to have an air conditioner in her house.
Abruptly Barbara says, "What were these people thinking?" referring to the Germans, Dutch, and Irish people who settled the area. "This is the Plains," she says, "A state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the Blues." The couple laughs, but when Bill goes to touch Barbara, she tells him not to. Jean, their daughter, walks up and they go into the house. A jubilant and multifarious slew of greetings ensues, with Mattie Fae noting that Bill has lost weight and calling attention to the fact that Jean is an adolescent.
When Violet comes down the stairs, she bursts into tears and grabs Barbara. Barbara tells her that they will figure everything out and Violet greets Bill and Jean. Violet asks Barbara and Bill to look at the paperwork on Beverly's desk and sort through it, then asks Mattie Fae and Charlie to spend the night, even though they haven't gotten someone to look after their dogs. The scene ends with Johnna entering and introducing herself, immediately after Violet refers to her as "the Indian who lives in my attic."
The play is set in the Weston family home, an imposing structure that takes up the whole stage and is the first image that we see in the play. From the looks of the house, we get a glimpse of the Weston family's lifestyle. It is a sprawling country house filled with books and different rooms, but with plastic shades over the window. It is a family home, lived in, with a sense of history, but that also seems to have some dark secrets hidden within, as signified by the shades and the duct tape over the crevices around the shades.
Additionally, the Robert Penn Warren quote that prefaces the play also clues us in to the darker edges of the Westons' story. The quote is an excerpt from Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The King's Men, and describes the relationship between an aging parent and a child not as love, but as "a kind of blood greed." He writes, "When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a ham trying to get it back, and you are it." Described thusly, the relationship between a parent and child is not a happy one, but an almost parasitic one, one that is not loving or amiable, but desperate and tense.
When we do meet the patriarch and matriarch of the Weston family, Beverly and Violet, the Robert Penn Warren quote reads as something of an understatement. Beverly is highly intellectual and warm, but a consummate alcoholic who openly talks about preparing to kill himself. He has a preoccupation with the suicidal poets of history, and tells us that living has started to get in the way of his drinking. Meanwhile, his wife Violet is addicted to pills, switching abruptly between sweet-natured and bitingly mean-spirited. The two of them make a tragic pair, a particularly altered version of George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They seem doomed before the action of the play has even begun.
No sooner have we met Beverly than he disappears. In the first scene of the play, following the prologue, he has gone missing, and the family has returned to the family home. The more soulful musings of Beverly have been replaced by mindless squabbling and arguments between visitors like Mattie Fae and Charlie. The tragedy of the Weston family's decline is put into even starker relief by the arrival of the more comic members of the family.
The first scene is structured around the arrival of the various family members. They have all pursued separate paths and are convening for the rather unhappy reason that Beverly has gone missing. Ivy is the daughter who lives closest to home and gets taken for granted by her judgmental mother. Barbara is Violet's favorite, a put-together woman who is starting a family in Colorado. Mattie Fae is Violet's sister, a nosy and bossy woman who never shies away from making her opinions known. In this cacophonous family structure, comic dynamics and witty alliances are layered atop tragedy and cruelty.