Excelsior. Fictional New Jersey city, whose very name implies upward striving, that is the home of the novel’s Antrobus family. Mother, daughter, son, maid, and pets await the return of the father, who is at his office. Mrs. Antrobus berates the maid, Sabina, for letting the fire go out in the suburban living room as the Ice Age is dawning. When Mr. Antrobus comes home, he brings along refugees whose talents he hopes to save, among them Moses, Homer, and several of the Muses. As the room fills up, a baby dinosaur and a little mammoth are ordered out into the cold. Nature is not humanity’s only enemy; viewers learn that the Antrobus son Henry has another name: Cain. As the ice grinds nearer, Sabina, the maid, includes the audience in the setting, asking them to contribute their chairs for firewood.
*Atlantic City. New Jersey resort city. Thornton Wilder’s Atlantic City offers that image of it well known to popular culture: the Boardwalk, the ocean, the beauty contests. A fortune-teller’s tent spotlights the chancy nature of survival. Sabina, now a pageant winner, confers with the gypsy about seducing George Antrobus, present as a conventioneer. The crone laughs darkly and predicts rain and the destruction of every living thing except two animals of every kind. Nature and tawdry humanity are again complicit in the erosion of civilization, which once more teeters on the brink. Suddenly the seafront playland has become an embarking stage for a modern ark. Storm warnings hang on the pier, and the family and the pairs of animals board the ship as the waters rise.
Antrobus house. Having survived the flood, Sabina and Mrs. Antrobus crawl out of the wreckage of the Excelsior house. Walls tilt drunkenly, and fire burns in the distance. The daughter emerges from a trapdoor carrying a baby, and Henry, now identified as the enemy, staggers into the battered home to fall asleep, forgiven one more time. The back wall disappears to reveal an arching path across which actors parade, speaking words of wisdom. There is a blackout; then lights come up to show Sabina repeating her act 1 opening speech in a restored house as the cycle of renewal begins again.