Hal Carter, a young vagabond. Hal is a powerfully built drifter, a former college athlete reluctantly aware that he must find himself a job and a place in the world or be a drifter all of his life. Hal joins a Labor Day picnic at the invitation of his former college roommate, Alan Seymour. He escorts Millie, the bookwormish younger sister of the town beauty, Madge, to the envy of Rosemary, the aging schoolteacher who rooms with the Owenses. Hal’s presence creates havoc in the lives of the picnickers, especially the women.
Madge Owens, a beautiful woman. Hal’s meeting with Madge, the town beauty, has an electric tension even though they are not certain of their immediate attraction for each other. Madge knows only that she is even less certain that she wants to marry Alan, even though she is being pushed into it by her mother, Flo Owens.
Millie Owens, the highly intelligent, uninhibited younger sister of Madge. Millie has won a scholarship to the state university but knows very little about attracting members of the opposite sex. Ultimately, it is Millie who gives Madge the courage to follow Hal by stating, “For once in your life, do something bright.”
Flo Owens, the attractive mother of Madge and Millie. She rents rooms in her home to schoolteachers. Flo was deserted by her husband many years ago, and Hal reminds her of her husband, who could not accept life’s responsibilities. She wants Madge to marry dependable Alan Seymour and live the safe, secure life that she never knew.
Helen Potts, the neighbor lady whom Hal asks if he may do some yard chores in return for breakfast. Helen is friendly and outgoing but is a resilient woman. She still cares for her invalid mother, who, years ago, had her brief marriage annulled.
Rosemary Sydney, a schoolteacher who boards at the Owenses’ home and has been dating Howard Bevans, an unromantic shopkeeper whose attentions are desperately welcomed by the frustrated schoolteacher. Rosemary cannot face the obvious absorption of Hal and Madge in each other at the picnic and the breathlessness with which they dance together. Unable to share their mood, Rosemary creates a scene that forces Hal to flee the picnic. Madge follows him into the night, despite his warning that he is no good for her.
Alan Seymour, Madge’s boyfriend, who is the son of a wealthy local businessman. Alan is the former college roommate of Hal, who was a football star until he flunked out. Hal comes to town as a man who is running out of options; he hopes to land a job with Alan’s help, even though they have not seen each other for many years.
Howard Bevans, a mild-mannered small-town businessman who is a bachelor approaching middle age. He has been going out with Rosemary for many years without proposing marriage. After the Labor Day picnic, Rosemary abandons her feigned indifference to marriage and begs Howard to marry her. Howard gives her lame excuses, but the next morning she announces in front of other people that they are to be married, so he has little choice. Rosemary’s moment of triumph occurs when she rides off with Howard for an Ozark marriage and honeymoon.
Bomber, the paperboy, who crudely lusts after Madge. Millie constantly conflicts with his adolescent desires and Madge simply tries to ignore him.
Irma Kronkite, a schoolteacher friend of Rosemary who is also an unmarried woman, just returning from a “wicked” vacation in New York....
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She has visited the Stork Club. She was supposed to be concentrating on a master’s degree in education at Columbia University.
Christine Schoenwalder, a new schoolteacher in town who teaches “feminine hygiene.”
Howard Bevans Howard is Rosemary's suitor. He is his forties and reluctant to marry. He brings a bottle of whisky to a gathering and this leads to several serious problems. Millie drinks and becomes ill. Hal drinks and engages in a sexual encounter with Madge. Rosemary and Howard also drink, and this, too, leads to a sexual encounter. When Howard tries to take Rosemary back to the Owens' home early the following morning, she pleads with him to marry her. In spite of his reluctance, he agrees.
Bomber Bomber is the teenage newsboy. His role is small, primarily to comment upon Madge's beauty and to leer at her.
Hal Carter Hal is young and very handsome. He has no ties and frequently moves from town to town, changing jobs as he goes. While he qualifies as a drifter, his charm and good looks raise him above the typical transient. Hal has led a colorful life. He was a football hero in college and was promised a Hollywood movie career, but when that did not work out, he worked as a cowboy. Hitchhiking to Texas, he was picked up by two women and robbed. He is in town, hoping that his college buddy Alan and his father can get him a job.
Despite his past popularity, Hal reveals that he does not know how to act around socially refined young women and has not engaged in even the most typical of social functions; he has never been on a picnic. His childhood was spent in near-misses with the law, his father died from alcohol abuse, and he is estranged from his mother. Although he belonged to a fraternity in college, it was only his football heroism that paved the way for social acceptance. In reality, Hal is insecure, socially inept, and frightened that others will see through his bravado. When he has too much to drink, he seduces a willing Madge. Alan's father has him pursued on a trumped up charge of auto theft, and Hal must leave town. Before he goes, however, he stops to see Madge one final time. To Madge, the freewheeling Hal represents the opportunity for which she has been longing: a means out of the small town in which she has spent her entire life. She agrees to leave with him.
Irma Kronkite Irma is a teacher and a friend of Rosemary's. She has been to New York during the summer and returns in the fall to teach.
Mrs. Flo Owens Mrs. Owens is a widow of about forty. She thinks that a marriage between wealthy Alan and her oldest girl, Madge, would improve the family's status and guarantee a better life for her daughter. Flo pushes Madge to encourage Alan, telling her daughter that youthful beauty will not last and another opportunity for marriage may not come her way. Flo is especially afraid that Madge will end up struggling and poor just as she did. She is nervous about Hal's intrusion into their lives, recognizing in him a threat to Madge's future with Alan. Although it is never stated, it is implied that when she was young, Flo succumbed to an inappropriate love affair. This explains her disapproval of Madge's involvement with Hal.
Madge Owens Flo's oldest daughter is eighteen and exceptionally beautiful. She works part-time as a store clerk but is sensitive about this occupation; she is hoping for better. But Madge also understands that it is her beauty that men admire and not her intelligence. Her mother, Flo, has trained Madge to cook and sew—attributes considered essential for a “good,” domestic wife, and she is the daughter who stays home to cook, while the other young people go off to swim. The train whistle in the distance represents freedom for Madge, who wants to travel and experience life away from the small town in which she was born and raised. Her opportunity for escape occurs after a night spent with Hal. After he leaves, she realizes that she loves him, and although she also understands that he may amount to little in life, she wants to take the chance of being with him. The play ends when she leaves with her few belongings packed in a small suitcase.
Millie Owens Millie is one of Flo's daughters. She is sixteen, shy but boisterous, and assertive in an effort to appear confident. She is not as attractive as Madge, but she is a better student. Millie is something of a tomboy, preferring sports and the company of boys to staying home and learning how to perform domestic chores. Millie wants to go to college, become a writer, and escape to a life in New York.
Helen Potts Mrs. Potts is a widow, almost sixty years old. She and her mother share a house. She hires Hal to do some chores and in doing so, sets in motion the events that will change all their lives. Mrs. Potts's mother is demanding; it is clear that she has kept her daughter from ever having a real life with a man. The rumor is that after Helen married Mr. Potts, her mother had the marriage annulled. Helen kept his name just to remind her mother of those few hours of freedom. She encourages Hal because she is attracted to him and wants him to find the happiness in life that was denied her.
Christine Schoenwalder Christine is a new teacher who has just moved to town. She socializes with Rosemary and Irma.
Alan Seymour Alan is a wealthy young man and Madge's steady boyfriend. He and Hal are acquainted from their college days together. When Alan realizes that Hal is working next door, he is overjoyed to find his friend. Alan's father is sending him back to college, probably to get him away from Madge, who is from the wrong side of town. Alan loves Madge and turns on Hal when he realizes the two are attracted to one another. He leaves town after it becomes clear that Madge loves Hal.
Rosemary Sydney Rosemary is a roomer in the Owens' household. She is an unmarried school teacher who assumes an attitude of indifference to what happens around her. She pretends to be uninterested in men, and she also implies that she is younger, although she is close to Flo's age. The reality is that Rosemary wants very badly to marry. After alcohol loosens her inhibitions, she has sex with Howard and then pleads with him to marry her.