That night, the rain continues. The mess from act one is gone from the living room, and Dodge is asleep on the sofa, his scalp bleeding from the aggressively short haircut. Vince, Tilden’s twenty-two-year-old son, and Shelly, Vince’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend, appear on the screen porch. Shelly is extremely amused by the pastoral setting, and compares the farmhouse to a Norman Rockwell painting. Vince scolds her for acting silly, explaining that the situation is tense because he hasn’t seen his family in over six years.
Rockwell was known for his idyllic illustrations of family life in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the house reminds Shelly of a stereotypical all-American family, the behavior that the family displayed in the first act shows us just how false this sentiment is. Shelly begins to discover the darkness that clouds the family and she becomes our audience surrogate—providing a relatively sane outsider’s perspective into the family’s bizarre and sinister world.
The young couple enters, and Vince goes upstairs to see if anyone is home. Shelly notices Dodge on the couch, and he wakes up and startles her. While Vince is upstairs looking at photographs, Shelly attempts to explain to Dodge that she and Vince were on their way to New Mexico so that Vince could reconnect with Tilden, and that they stopped at Dodge’s on the way for a visit.
By stating that the objective of the trip is to reunite Vince with his estranged family, Shelly sets up the couple as the external force that will challenge the family’s desire to deny, escape, or falsify the past.
Vince comes downstairs, but Dodge is confused and does not recognize him. When Vince asks after Halie, Dodge responds by saying that she won’t be back for days. Dodge also reveals that Tilden is here at the farmhouse, rather than in New Mexico like Vince thought. Spooked, Shelly asks Vince that they leave.
Dodge seems to mistake Vince for Tilden, showing just how deeply the family members are estranged from each other. Shelly’s assumptions about the house immediately begin to transform as she witnesses this distressing level of alienation.
Dodge starts to comment on Shelly’s physical appearance and she grows more frightened, begging Vince to leave, but he forces her to stay. Dodge calls for Tilden, who then enters with an armful of carrots, apparently from out back.
The family is frightening and strange to an outsider like Shelly, but Vince is determined to reconnect with his past. The carrots again represent the ongoing possibility of redemption or new life.
Tilden does not seem to recognize Vince, and when Shelly presses him, Tilden tells her that his son is dead and buried in the back yard.
Tilden’s cryptic statement is reminiscent of Dodge’s. The secret that the back yard holds makes Tilden unable to recognize Vince, and adds to the growing sense of mystery and horror. Tilden is clearly mentally troubled in some way.
As Vince grows even more confused by the situation, Shelly offers to take the carrots from Tilden and begins to help peel them. Dodge asks Vince to get him a new bottle of alcohol, and Shelly urges him to do so. Vince accuses Shelly of adding to the confusion.
While Vince struggles to get his bearings, Shelly offers to help with Tilden’s harvest, taking action to establish some normality to the scene. Her helpfulness and friendliness positions her to uncover more about the family’s past later.
While Vince makes various attempts to remind Dodge and Tilden of who he is, Dodge begs for alcohol and lasciviously comments on Shelly’s beauty. Vince finally gives up and agrees to get Dodge his bottle.
Vince’s desperation to be remembered by Dodge and Tilden suggests the power of the family unit, no matter how bad that family’s behavior might be. Dodge grows increasingly less sympathetic as he leers at Shelly.
Shelly does not want Vince to leave her alone in the house, and she asks to come along, but Vince is bewildered and wants to be alone. He leaves Shelly, saying he is going to get the bottle and will return right away.
Vince seems suddenly in the grip of the family now, and automatically chooses Dodge’s wishes over Shelly’s.
Once Vince is gone, Shelly asks Tilden if he is really unable to remember Vince. Tilden says he finds something familiar about Vince but cannot recall him. Tilden asks Shelly to tell him some shred of personal information about Vince. When Shelly refuses, Tilden says that he also has awful secrets that he cannot tell.
Even though Tilden does not fully recognize Vince, the connection he feels for him again emphasizes the power of the familial bond. The comfort that Shelly has now cultivated with Tilden allows for the family’s dark past to slowly begin emerging. Tilden seems to think that Shelly’s reticence means that she has a horrible past of her own, so he trusts her.
Tilden admires Shelly’s rabbit-fur coat, and Shelly allows him to feel it. She gives it to him, and he puts it on, taking pleasure in the softness of the material. Tilden tells Shelly that there was a time when he used to be free to adventure, but now he can’t any longer. When Shelly presses him for more information, Tilden reveals that there was a baby in the family, but Dodge drowned it, and no one knows where he put it.
We see again just how childlike and developmentally stunted Tilden is. Shelly, as the audience’s proxy, works to unearth the family’s past. In this moment, one of the play’s mysteries comes into focus as we learn the specifics of the curse-like crime that hangs over the household.
An agitated Dodge tries to get Tilden to stop telling Shelly this story, and he tries to stand and walk toward Tilden, but he falls. Tilden continues to tell Shelly that not even Halie or Bradley know where the corpse of the baby is buried. Meanwhile Shelly moves to help Dodge, but Tilden forcibly keeps her seated. Tilden tries to return Shelly’s jacket to her, but she does not take it.
Dodge continues to try to suppress the past, but he is becoming too weak to stop it from coming out, as evidenced by his worsening illness. Tilden seems childlike and innocent, but he is still a grown man with a grown man’s strength, and so another potentially frightening figure for Shelly.
The squeaking of a wooden leg is heard and Bradley enters. He sees Shelly and begins to interrogate her, asking who she is and what she’s doing in the house. Bradley takes the coat from Tilden and tells Shelly that she should take Tilden away with her. He says that Tilden used to be a great football player but is now a failure. Bradley says the same is true of Dodge.
Bradley’s public disdain for Tilden again reinforces the family’s dysfunction. Here Bradley invokes the past, but unlike his mother, he uses it for ridicule rather than nostalgic reminiscing. Bradley is childish in his own way as he mocks his traumatized brother.
Bradley accuses Shelly of being with Tilden, mocking her by saying that women like men who are “important.” Intimidated, Tilden bolts off.
Bradley’s emphasis on “importance” is evidence of an insecurity with his own level of power within the family.
When Shelly offers to help Dodge, Bradley mocks her by saying that they should drown Dodge instead. Terrified, Shelly tells Bradley to shut up. Bradley then asserts his dominance by forcing Shelly to open her mouth and putting his fingers into it. As the act ends, Bradley has one hand in Shelly’s mouth, and he drops the fur coat on Dodge, covering Dodge’s head.
In a grotesque, horrifying show of force, Bradley vies for the position of power by frightening his older brother, symbolically “burying” his father with the coat, and physically dominating Shelly. Bradley’s moral compass is determined by a desire for power, unlike Tilden, who although confused, seems like a decent person.