Part one: From the beginning of the Act through Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb’s conversation in the garden
The play opens with a view of an empty, curtainless, half-lighted stage. The Stage Manager enters and arranges minimal scenery—a table and three chairs—to represent two houses, one on each side of the stage. The houselights dim as the Stage Manager moves about the stage. When the theater is completely dark, he introduces the play, naming the playwright, producers, director, and cast. He then identifies the setting: the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, just before dawn on May 7, 1901.
The Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience as he maps out local landmarks. The audience must use its imagination, since the minimalist set does not detail any of these landmarks, which include Main Street, the public schools, Town Hall, and several churches. The Stage Manager explains that the two sets of tables and chairs denote the homes of the Gibbs family and the Webb family. As he speaks, his assistants wheel out two trellises to represent the back doors of Mrs. Webb’s and Mrs. Gibbs’s homes. “There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager comments. He mentions that the 5:45 a.m. train to Boston is just about to depart. A train whistle blows offstage and the Stage Manager looks at his watch, nodding.
As dawn breaks over Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager proceeds to introduce the audience to the town’s inhabitants. We witness the beginning of a new day in the Webb and Gibbs households and observe the morning activities of the two families and a few other townspeople. The characters pantomime many of their actions due to the absence of props and scenery. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs enter their respective kitchens, light their stoves, and begin making breakfast. The Stage Manager informs the audience that both Dr. Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs have died since 1901, when this scene originally took place.
Dr. Gibbs, on his way home from delivering a local woman’s twin babies, stops to chat briefly with the paperboy, Joe Crowell, Jr. They discuss the upcoming marriage of a local schoolteacher. Dr. Gibbs stands in the street and reads the paper as Joe exits. The Stage Manager interrupts the immediate action to inform the audience that Joe would go on the become the brightest boy in high school and study at Massachusetts Tech. Well on his way to becoming a successful engineer, Joe would be killed in France during World War I.
Howie Newsome, the milkman, enters with an invisible horse. Howie stops to converse with Dr. Gibbs, who gives him the news of the twins’ birth. After Howie delivers his milk to the Gibbs residence, Dr. Gibbs goes inside and greets his wife, who has made coffee for him. Mrs. Gibbs asks her husband to speak to their teenage son, George, about helping around the house more often. Next door, Mrs. Webb calls her children—Emily and Wally—down to breakfast. In the Gibbs household, George and his sister, Rebecca, enter the kitchen and sit at the table. Both pairs of children chatter over breakfast, then go outside, meet in the street, and hurry off to school together.
Left alone, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb go outside into their gardens. The two women see each other and come together for a chat. Mrs. Gibbs tells Mrs. Webb that she has some news: a traveling secondhand furniture salesman recently offered her the hefty sum of $350 for her highboy, an old piece of furniture. The women discuss whether Mrs. Gibbs should accept the offer and what she would do with the money. Mrs. Gibbs says that if she does decide to sell the highboy, she hopes to live out the “dream of [her] life” and travel to Paris for a visit. Her excitement is tempered, however, by the fact that Dr. Gibbs has already told her that “traipsin’ about Europe” might make him disheartened with Grover’s Corners, and thus thinks a trip to Paris might be a bad idea. Mrs. Gibbs says that her husband only cares about going to Civil War battlefields. Mrs. Webb remarks that her husband, an eager student of Napoleonic history, greatly admires Dr. Gibbs’s Civil War expertise. At this point, the Stage Manager interrupts abruptly and tips his hat to the two women, who nod in recognition. He thanks the two ladies, and they return to their houses and disappear from the stage.