Note to reader: Due to the dense nature of the play, each act has been subdivided into smaller sections. There are two subdivisions for Acts One and Four, and three for Acts Two and Three. At the beginning of each summary is an indication of the range of the play the summary that it covers.
The following summaries and analyses are based on Ronald Hingley's English translation of the play (1966), available from Oxford University Press.
The play begins in a room that is called the "nursery", even though, as we soon find out, it has been unoccupied by children for many years. It is dawn on a cold and frosty May morning, and the cherry trees are in bloom. Yermolay Lopakhin, a businessman, is eagerly awaiting the return of Ranevsky, the owner of the house and the surrounding estate, who, Lopakhin tells us, has been away for five years. Also waiting is Dunyasha, a maid on Ranevsky's estate. Lopakhin recounts a story of how Ranevsky was kind to him after his father had beaten him as a child, pausing as he remembers how Ranevsky referred to him as a "little peasant". Dunyasha worries and fusses with her appearance; Lopakhin tells her not to be so sensitive and to "remember her place".
They are soon joined by the clerk Simon Yephikodov, who drops flowers on the floor as he enters. He complains about the weather, about his squeaking shoes, and his unfortunate life. Lopakhin is rude to him, and Simon leaves. Afterwards, Dunyasha confesses to Lopakhin that Yepikhodov has proposed to her and that he is called "Simple Simon" by everyone else on the estate both for his strange talk and the frequent accidents that befall him.
Ranevsky then arrives from the train station. Everyone leaves the house to greet her. As she enters, she is accompanied by Anya, her daughter who has been with her in Paris since Easter, by Varya, her adopted twenty-four year-old daughter who has been managing her mother's estate and went to meet Ranevsky at the station, by Firs, her 87-year-old manservant who has also been to greet Ranevsky at the train station, and by Charlotte, Anya's governess. She is also greeted by Leonid Gayev, her brother, and Boris Simeonov-Pischik, another landowner. Dunyasha lets Anya know that Peter Trofimov, the tutor of Ranevsky's dead son Grisha, is staying in the bathhouse, and Anya reacts with surprised joy.
Varya enters, carrying the keys to the estate. Varya and Anya greet each other tearfully. Anya explains to Varya the depressing conditions that she found their mother in when she came to Paris, and the fact that, despite her poverty, her mother insists on spending money wherever she goes. Varya, in her turn, talks about her hopes of one day marrying Anya off to a rich man. Varya is expected to marry Lopakhin, but she reveals that he has not yet propsed, and she fears he never will. She says that if she only had enough money, she would leave the estate behind and join a convent. Anya explains, seemingly to no one but the audience, why her mother left for Paris: the death, six years previous, of Mr. Ranevsky, followed one month later by the drowning of the family's seven-year old son in the nearby river.
Yasha enters. He is a young servant who has been traveling with Ranevsky ever since she left Russia. Dunyasha recognizes him, but he doesn't recognize her; he calls Dunyasha a "tasty little morsel", and kisses her, causing her to drop a saucer. Yasha goes out, and Varya comes in, and asks what happened. Dunyasha explains that she dropped a saucer; Varya says that in the old days, dropping a saucer was considered good luck. Soon Anya decides to go bed, saying that she is tired from travel.
The opening of the play serves several purposes: it first of all sets the focus of the play on memory and the past. We learn that the room we are in is called the "nursery", even though no children reside here. It was the childhood home of Ranevsky and Gayev. Lopakhin immediately mentions that he has not seen Ranevsky for five years and then mentions an incident that occurred between fifteen and twenty years ago, when he was a teenager. When the stage is briefly left empty during Ranevsky's arrival, the first person to return to it is Firs; his traditional servants' clothes and his advanced age both mark him as a figure from the past and associate Ranevsky's return with a return of that past, as his arrival on the stage directly announces hers. And both the main characters to whom we are introduced—Ranevsky and Lopakhin—are also defined by the way they relate to the past, specifically their childhood memories.
Chekhov here gives us both Lopakhin and Ranevsky's important character traits, and establishes their relationship. Lopakhin reveals himself almost immediately to be very self-conscious; he talks about what an "idiot" he is, for falling asleep and not meeting Ranevsky at the station and compares himself to "a bull in a china shop". When he talks about how Ranevksy cleaned his face after his father had beaten him as a child, he pauses after remembering the word "peasant". He then says, as if in argument, that he is now "rich". And after Lopakhin remembers being reminded of his place by Ranevsky, he then reminds Dunyasha of her place as well. All these remarks indicate that the source of Lopakhin's self-consciousness lies in the memories of his brutal, impoverished childhood. But these memories also include Ranevsky's kindness. Ranevsky's arrival, then, seems to create an identity crisis in Lopakhin, between the rich businessman he sees himself as now and the peasant to which Ranevsky was kind; his attachment to her draws him towards a past he no longer identifies himself with.
Ranevsky's first word upon her entrance into the scene is "nursery"; if Lopakhin is trying to distance himself from his past, she is moving towards it. She is full of childish enthusiasm and overstatement, describing the nursery - which she grew up in - as "heavenly". She weeps. She kisses Dunyasha, and says she feels like "a little girl again".
"Lyuba", Ranevsky's first name, means "love" in Russian, and she can be seen as a symbol of kindness. Her kindness, as we have seen however, is double-edged. Her kindness is that of the noblewoman to the peasant, there is some condescension underlying. Anya also tells us that despite of her poverty, Ranevsky insists on eating lavishly and tipping her waiters handsomely. From Varya we learn that after her son Grishka drowned, she "dropped everything and went," because "it was too much for her". This information paints Ranevsky in a more negative light; she is weak and unable to deal with or face reality. She may be fleeing into her memories to avoid facing reality, a reality in which (we already know) she is in debt and has lost two loved ones.
The tone at the play's opening is balanced and ironic. We learn that though it is May and the cherry trees are in bloom, it is frosty and cold outside. It is an image conflicted between the warmth of life and the cold of winter. Similarly, we have two main characters, both presented sympathetically, one of whom is trying to escape the past and the other who is trying to find refuge in it. Chekhov sets up a tragedy; time is flowing towards an end-point, a catastrophe—the sale of the estate. But in Yephikodov, we have "tragedy" taken to an extreme; his misfortunes are so constant and inevitable they are comic, as if Chekhov himself is mocking the play's sense of impending tragedy.
Finally, these first moments serve to foreshadow the rest of the play. The joy of Act One's arrival is counterbalanced by the tears we will see in the departure of Act Four. The opening of the estate's windows will become the locking of its doors. Much of the play's story line will occur off- stage—we only hear or hear about certain key events, and people; Chekov uses the device of an empty stage to foreshadow this emphasis. Firs is the first character to return to the stage after it is emptied, which directly foreshadows Firs's forthcoming significance to the end of the play.