When seventeen-year-old Jo and her mother Helen carry luggage into their new apartment, the two women’s conversation soon reveals that their relationship is characterized by frequent tension, misunderstanding, and underlying resentment—as well as interdependence. While Jo immediately criticizes the apartment’s run-down state, it becomes apparent that her grudge has much deeper roots. She attacks Helen for her excessive drinking and for their unstable lives, as they are forced to move from one apartment to the next according to Helen’s relationship with her “fancy men,” lovers who give her money. More generally, Jo laments Helen’s lack of care. Jo feels emotionally and materially abandoned by her mother, who takes little interest in her life and always follows her selfish whims without considering their effects on her daughter. Jo concludes that all she wants is to start working, so that she can gain financial independence and live away from her mother.
Instead of taking Jo’s complaints to heart, Helen seems detached and indifferent to her daughter’s pain. She argues that she does not believe in interfering in other people’s lives, since it already takes her too much time to take care of her own. A few minutes after they move in, however, she sees her daughter’s drawings and realizes that Jo has talent. She enthusiastically encourages her to attend art school, saying she would pay for it herself. Jo refuses, arguing that Helen has always disrupted her chances of having a stable education, but this episode still demonstrates Helen’s underlying trust in her daughter’s intelligence and artistic capacities—even if, most of the time, she is either incapable or unwilling of fostering it.
While the two women are still arguing, Peter, one of Helen’s lovers, suddenly enters the apartment. Assertive and bold, he begins to flirt with Helen, who is shocked to see him. When Peter discovers that Jo is Helen’s daughter, he realizes that Helen is much older than he thought. As the conversation evolves, Jo realizes that the motive for their recent move is that Helen was trying to flee from Peter, for reasons that remain unspecified. Meanwhile, despite Helen’s rejection of Peter’s advances, Helen seems flattered by the man’s brazen efforts at seduction. Suddenly, Peter jokingly asks Helen to marry him. As Helen refuses, his proposal becomes more serious and more insistent. Initially taken aback, Helen ultimately tells him that, if he proposes one more time, she is likely to accept.
In the second scene of Act One, Jo is walking home from school with her boyfriend, Jimmie, a black sailor who is about to leave with the Navy in a few weeks. While Jimmie assumes that Jo must be ashamed to be seen with him in the street because of the interracial nature of their relationship, Jo sees no reason to hide and her sincerity impresses him. While their relationship is lighthearted and playful, Jimmie suddenly asks Jo to marry him, and Jo accepts. He gives her a ring, which Jo ties around her neck, trying to tuck it in so that her mother will not see it. While Jo does not believe that Helen would be bothered by Jimmie’s skin color, she does not want Helen to laugh at her for getting engaged.
When Jo enters her apartment, Helen discovers that Jo has a boyfriend and interrogates her about him. Later in the conversation, Helen suddenly announces that she is getting married to Peter. While Jo argues that Helen is too old to get married, the young woman’s reaction seems moved by feelings of disappointment, as she feels that Helen is abandoning her once again. Peter then walks in, bearing flowers for Helen and chocolates for Jo. Jo behaves aggressively toward Peter, seemingly trying to provoke him, and Helen tells her to leave him alone. Jo discovers that Peter has bought a house for Helen and himself, which makes her feel completely abandoned. Jo asks her mother why she is marrying Peter, and Helen replies that she is only doing so for his money. After Helen and Peter leave, Jo lies down on the bed and begins to cry. Her boyfriend then comes in and tries to console her. While Jo invites him to stay over for Christmas, she does not seem to believe his declarations of love or his promises to return. Her instinct tells her, instead, that she will probably never see him again.
Helen is getting ready for her wedding. When Helen sees the ring that Jo is wearing around her neck and realizes that her daughter has gotten engaged, she attacks Jo for her foolishness and seems truly upset about her daughter’s decision. She tries to convince her not to get married, saying that she is too young to be trapped in matrimony. However, Jo attacks Helen in turn, saying that this situation is her fault. She reveals that, anyway, she is already “ruined”—a comment that only elicits more aggressive comments from Helen. Before Helen leaves, Jo asks her about her father. Helen reveals that Jo’s father was a mentally challenged man, whom she had sex with to compensate for her rich husband’s aversion to sex. As Helen leaves, Jo says that she is neither glad nor sorry to see her go.
Act Two begins a few months later. Jo is living alone in the same apartment and is, by now, visibly pregnant. She enters the apartment with her friend Geoffrey, an art student whom she believes has been kicked out of his apartment for being gay. She interrogates Geof about his sexuality in a rude, mocking way, which offends Geof and makes him want to leave. Realizing that she has hurt his feelings, Jo apologizes and asks him to stay with her, adding that he can sleep on the couch. Geof then interrogates Jo about her pregnancy, showing concern and a true interest in her problems, as well as a willingness to take care of her. The two of them thus begin to live together, developing a close friendship over the course of the next months.
While Jo trusts that her relationship with Geof is entirely non-sexual, providing both of them with much-needed affection and comfort, on one occasion Geof grabs her and forces her to kiss him. He asks her to marry him, but Jo says she does not like him in that way, adding that she does not want to marry anyone. Helen then suddenly enters the apartment. Geof, who believed that Jo’s mother should know about her pregnancy, had contacted Helen so that she would come to take care of her daughter. However, Jo is angry at Geof for going behind her back, and Helen’s visit soon evolves into an explosive fight, in which Helen attacks Jo for getting pregnant and declares that she has no responsibility toward her child and grandchild. While Geof attempts to intervene, Helen and Jo both attack him, trying to keep him out of the fight.
In the middle of this discussion, Peter enters the apartment. He is drunk and begins to mock everyone, making fun of Jo’s pregnancy, Geof’s effeminacy, and Helen’s dependence on him. Showing no concern for Jo’s difficult situation, he keeps Helen from giving Jo money or offering her a home. When he finally leaves, Helen initially refuses to leave with him, asserting that she is going to stay with Jo, but finally gives in and follows him out.
A few months later, Jo is in the final stage of her pregnancy. Despite her occasional anger and disgust with the idea of motherhood, she now seems happy in her domestic partnership with Geof. At the same time, she also mentions that she wishes her mother were present to accompany her through this important moment, despite their constant fighting. Helen then enters the apartment, carrying luggage as in the first scene of the play. While Helen pretends that she has returned to take care of Jo, her daughter soon learns that Peter has left her for another woman and that she is thus forced to return to Jo’s apartment. Helen shows a strong dislike toward Geof and, through hostile comments and an aggressive attitude, succeeds in making him leave the apartment for good. Geof justifies his decision to leave by saying that Jo cannot handle the two of them in the same apartment. Before leaving, he asks Helen not to frighten Jo unnecessarily about the dangers of childbirth, but Helen simply tells Jeff not to tell her what to do in response.
The play ends as Jo is beginning to feel labor pains. Hiding the fact that she has just forced Geof to leave, Helen comforts Jo in the bedroom until Jo announces that her baby is probably going to be dark-skinned; Helen is appalled, interpreting this piece of information as yet another social disgrace. Instead of keeping Jo company during this crucial time, she decides that she needs to go out for a drink. Jo thus finds herself alone in the apartment again. Unaware of Geof’s departure, she smiles as she recalls a nursery rhyme that he once sang to her. She softly sings it to herself, seemingly drawing comfort from the playful tune.