Deborah, a hospital patient who has suffered from sleeping sickness (Encephalitis lethargica) since she was sixteen years old. She is in her mid-forties and has been asleep for twenty-nine years; hence, she does not know her age. She wakes as the play begins, and in her attempts to realize what has happened to her, she alternately thinks that she has merely overslept, that she has been awakened from the dead, that she is imprisoned or a victim of “white slavers,” or that she is in a fairy tale. Unable to think or behave as a grown woman, Deborah speaks in the inflated romantic or sharply petty tones of an adolescent. Her speech is unconnected to her surroundings. She has the sexual preoccupations of an adolescent and attaches sexual meanings to her sleep, as well as to her awakening by Hornby.
Hornby, the physician who has cared for Deborah for twenty-nine years and now wakes her. He is married to Pauline and is therefore Deborah’s brother-in-law. Although he seems, at first, to be a dispassionate physician who limits his talk to simple statements and queries, his personal involvement in Deborah’s case is revealed as the play progresses. He views his care and awakening of Deborah in sexual terms, just as she does: He has become obsessed with her. It is Hornby who gives Deborah the most specific details of her illness and of the fate of members of her family, and he insists to her that it is the conscious ones who have suffered the most from the effects of her sickness.
Pauline, Deborah’s younger sister, who is married to Hornby. She is in her early forties. She is the only member of Deborah’s family who is present onstage. Initially rejected by Deborah, who cannot see her sister in the grown woman, Pauline tentatively gives facts to her sister, but she is deliberately vague: She does not mention their mother’s death, their father’s blindness, or their older sister Estelle’s wasted life. She also describes herself as a “widow,” leaving it to Hornby to reveal their marriage and the cause of its failure: his devotion to the unconscious Deborah.