Barbara, Bill, and Violet sit in the dining room drinking coffee and eating pie. Violet is filling the two of them in on the circumstances of Beverly’s disappearance. According to her, he left the previous Saturday morning and did not return—he has been missing now for more than five days. Violet says that for the first couple days, she didn’t think anything of Beverly’s absence—she assumed he’d gone on a bender. As Violet speaks, her words become slurred and her sentences begin to fall apart. By Sunday, she says, when there was still no sign of Beverly, she began getting worried and “worked up” about a safety deposit box at the bank in which the two of them kept a great deal of cash and some jewelry.
This passage makes clear that there is more going on in the Weston household than meets the eye. As Barbara listens to her mother’s strange and erratic take on recent events, it becomes clear to her that both her parents have descended into harrowing substance abuse—and that her mother is more concerned with ensuring her own survival than Beverly’s.
Barbara asks Violet why Violet was concerned about the box—Violet reveals that she and Beverly had an arrangement that if something ever happened to one of them, the other would go and empty the box to prevent its contents from getting rolled into their larger estate. Violet says that after the bank opened Monday, she went and emptied the box, and then called the police to report Beverly missing. Barbara is shocked that all of this happened on Monday, and that Barbara herself didn’t get a call until Thursday. All Violet says is that she didn’t want to worry Barbara.
Something shady is going on, but it’s not yet clear what. Violet’s preoccupation with securing her and Beverly’s material wealth could be a coping mechanism, or she could be following instructions Beverly himself gave her at some point in time. Nevertheless, the fact that Violet was so blasé about her husband’s disappearance raises a red flag for Barbra.
Bill asks if there was any trigger or catalyst for Beverly’s departure, but Violet says that there wasn’t. Barbara sarcastically applauds her “good old unfathomable dad.” When Bill presses Violet to think of anything unusual in the days leading up to Beverly’s departure, Violet does admit that Beverly only hired Johnna a few days before he left. She complains about having a stranger—an “Indian” stranger—in her house. Barbara attempts to correct her mother, reminding her that the correct term for indigenous people is “Native American.” Violet will not hear of such political correctness.
Violet’s intense anxiety about Johnna’s presence is symbolic of the metaphorical thread running through the whole of the play: Beverly and Violet’s generation is becoming irrelevant, and younger and marginalized communities are coming to the forefront of America’s collective consciousness. Violet is shocked that Beverly would have willingly ushered such change into their own home and does not know how react.
Violet changes the subject, asking Barbara when she was last in Oklahoma—she says she herself can’t even remember. Barbara begs her mother not to start an argument and defends her “dutiful” attitude towards her parents—she sends presents and letters, she says, and calls often. Violet, her speech becoming more and more labored, tells Barbara that she broke Beverly’s heart when she moved away to Colorado. Violet tells Barbara that she was always Beverly’s favorite child. Barbara defends her decision to leave—she and Bill got offered jobs in academia at a university in Colorado making twice what they would’ve made in Oklahoma. Barbara adds that Beverly gave her his “blessing” when she left.
Barbara does not see that she has any tangible duty or responsibility to her parents. She sees sending letters and presents a few times a year as duty enough—she is afraid to do anything more, or get any closer, as she has tried so hard to remove herself form their orbit by moving away to Colorado. Still, Barbara apparently has some guilt or shame over this choice, as she is hyper-defensive of her own agency and her father’s “blessing” alike.
Violet tells Barbara that Beverly’s “blessing” was false—behind her back, Beverly told Violet that he was disappointed in Barbara for settling, and not pursuing her talent as a writer. Barbara accuses Violet of making stories up to hurt her. She says that regardless, though, of what her father did or did not say, and of any talent she may or may not have had, she has the right to make her own choices.
Barbara asks Violet if Violet is high; Violet says she isn’t, though she very clearly is. Barbara tells Violet that she will not go through another pill addiction with her, and reminds Violet of her visit to the psych ward the last time she was “hooked.” Violet insists she isn’t hooked on anything—she’s simply in pain. She begins to cry, complaining of the awful pain in her mouth, and lamenting that Barbara came home when Beverly was in danger but did not even think about coming when Violet was first diagnosed with cancer. Barbara softens, comforting her mother and trying to assure her that Beverly is probably out on the lake with some books and some cigarettes and will come home any moment.
In this passage, Letts demonstrates how Violet is a master manipulator. High out of her mind but lying through her teeth about it, Violet successfully ensnares Barbara in the illusion that she is someone to be pitied. Whether her despair over having been abandoned by her daughter is as intense as she describes it, and whether the pain she feels is even real at all, is up to the audience—Barbara, however, is successfully drawn in, and is soon playing right into her mother’s hand.
Upstairs, Jean goes into the attic, where Johnna is reading. She greets Johnna and offers her some marijuana. Johnna declines. Jean asks if she can smoke in the attic, so that her parents won’t get suspicious. Johnna agrees to let Jean do so. As Jean packs a small pipe, she explains that her father doesn’t care about her smoking pot, but her mother does. She also reveals to Johnna that her parents are separated—Bill has been having an affair with a student.
Jean seems less surprised by Johnna’s presence—but she is nonetheless inconvenienced by it. Jean had probably been looking forward to having her old attic room, but now that Johnna is up here, Jean feels her space has been encroached upon. In this sense, her reaction to Johnna mirrors both Violet’s and Barbara’s.
Jean asks Johnna about her own parents, and Johnna tells Jean they are dead. Jean apologizes for bringing up something painful, but Johnna grabs a picture off of her dresser and shows it to Jean—it is her parents on the day of their wedding. Jean asks Johnna what she’s reading—Johnna reveals she is working her way through a T.S. Eliot book Beverly gave her. Jean admires Johnna’s necklace, which is shaped like a turtle. Johnna reveals that the necklace contains her umbilical cord—it is a Cheyenne tradition. Cheyenne men and women wear the necklaces their whole lives, because if they lose them, their souls “belong nowhere” and will walk the Earth forever. Jean, who has apparently not been listening, asks Johnna not to say anything to anyone else about her own parents’ split. They are trying, she says, to keep things “low-key.”
Jean at first seems to be genuinely interested in Johnna—her life, her family, her history, and her culture. Jean is revealed to be shallow and uninterested, though, when push comes to shove—she really just wants someone to talk to about her own problems. Jean is, in a way, blameless; her warring parents have dragged her to a place where she doesn’t really know anyone, and where the atmosphere is even more unstable than it is in her own home. Jean and Johnna are both outsiders in the family in a sense, and even if they don’t bond emotionally in this scene, Letts is drawing a commonality between the two of them.