Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949
Three women sit in an elegant bedroom that is tastefully furnished in pastel colors and silks. The bedroom belongs to the eldest woman, A, who announces that she is ninety-one years old. The middle-aged woman, B, is her paid caregiver, who clearly has long experience helping A with her daily routine, escorting her to the bathroom, placing her pillows, and humoring her mood swings. The young woman, C, appears to be a newcomer, unfamiliar with A’s personal habits and her autocratic attitudes. She comes with papers, and eventually it emerges that she has come from the law firm that handles A’s affairs to try to sort out some missing bills.
As C tries to get a sense of her elderly client, A tries to impress her new audience with her power. When C tries to argue, A rebuffs her with total contradiction and condescension. Her authority dissolves into confused tears, however, and C begins to understand the extent of A’s physical and mental deterioration. B explains to C that A is often incontinent and is suffering from osteoporosis and an atrophying arm that she refuses to have amputated. C begins to sympathize, but B sneers at her “softness,” insisting that people should look directly at their mortality.
A’s thoughts turn to memories of the past. She describes her guarded childhood under her mother, who warned A that everyone would want something from her. Her defensiveness continued through her prosperous marriage, in which she enjoyed riding horses but found herself confronting hostile in-laws, an unfaithful husband, and the increasing burden of her alcoholic sister. A recalls nursing her husband through a gruesome infection and bringing her abusive elderly mother to live with her. In her memories, A is constantly embattled: “I think they all hated me, because I was strong, because I had to be.” C is repulsed by A’s casual anti-Semitic and racist remarks, although B explains more tolerantly that these are simply the words that she learned early in life.
In the present, too, A is certain that everyone is out to take advantage of her. She accuses B of stealing from her and insists that she will handle her own financial affairs, despite C’s offer of additional assistance. A becomes confused and weeps that she cannot remember anything anymore. B reassures her that all her memories are “somewhere in there.” Exhausted by retelling a humiliating sexual anecdote about her husband, A retreats to bed. She complains about her son, who brings her flowers but does not love her. Act 1 ends as A shudders and falls silent; B checks her pulse and announces that A has had a stroke.
Act 2 appears to continue in the same setting, with B and C watching A lying in bed. It gradually emerges, however, that the dramatic situation has changed entirely. B and C, in different costumes from those of act 1, now represent two earlier stages in A’s life: B represents A at the age of fifty-two, and C represents her at the age of twenty-six. A herself reenters the scene in a new costume, now entirely rational and free from pain. The figure lying in the bed is a dummy. The three selves of A are watching their body approach death. “I wonder how long this’ll go on. I hope it’s quick.”
During the death-bed vigil, the three women compare notes about their life. C, the youngest, is curious to hear about her future. C’s recent memories of flirtation and sexual awakening are very fresh, and she hopes her future husband will be the man of her dreams; she is appalled by B’s and A’s funny, cynical descriptions of marriage and infidelity. She says angrily that she refuses to become A, or even B, although they laugh at her presumption. B, in middle age, is more curious to hear from A about endings: She asks when her husband will die and what will happen to her mother.
The women’s conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the Boy, their son, who enters silently and seats himself by the sleeping A. C is fascinated to see the handsome young man, but B is instantly enraged and tries to throw him out, although he is impervious. The Boy never speaks but sits silently by the dying woman.
In a harsh monologue, B explains to C how she buried some of her rage at her husband in an affair with a stable groom. Bitterly disappointed in her homosexual son, she threatened to throw him out, but he insulted her over her affair and left without saying good-bye. A informs B that the Boy will return twenty years later but that they will never forgive each other. Sitting on the bed next to her dying body, A speaks directly to the Boy, who is able to hear her. A describes a premonition of watching her own death and watching her son fake the motions of mourning without any actual feeling. The Boy weeps silently onstage.
In the wake of these deep disappointments, in the last section of the play each woman searches for her happiest moment. C hopes that her best, happiest moments are all ahead; surely, she thinks, her life has not peaked already at twenty-six. B says that middle age is the happiest time, comparing it to a mountain view of all directions, past and future. A, in the final speech, says that the happiest moment is coming to an end of life. She takes B and C by the hands for the final line of the play: “When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.”