It is nighttime—the window shades have all been un-taped and removed. Karen, Barbara, and Ivy sit in the study, drinking a bottle of whiskey. Charlie, Mattie Fae, Jean, and Steve play cards in the dining room while Bill sorts through paperwork on the porch. Violet is upstairs, looking out the window, her hair wrapped in a towel. Barbara and her sisters are talking about the report from their mother’s doctor, who told them earlier, when they brought her to his office after the debacle at dinner, that she may be “slightly brain damaged.” He claimed not to know that Violet was taking so much medication, and then suggested she be institutionalized.
The un-taping of the window shades symbolizes the new era of transparency that has been brought into the Weston household—in large part by Violet’s gleeful admission of her addiction to narcotics. The information Violet’s doctor reveals to the girls—that Violet may have sustained brain damage as a result of her addiction—will color the rest of the play, as it will never become clear whether Violet’s subsequent episodes of incoherence are due to a relapse or to the damage she has inflicted upon herself.
Karen asks why one doctor would write so many prescriptions, but Ivy cuts her off, telling her that Violet is, and has been for a long time, seeing multiple doctors and securing various prescriptions from each of them. When they threaten to cut her off, she threatens to take legal action and put their licenses in jeopardy, thus assuring that they are in her pocket for life. Barbara asks if Ivy knew that their mother’s old patterns had started up again recently, but Ivy only shrugs.
Despite Ivy’s proximity to her parents, and her unofficial status as their caretaker, she seems to have been oblivious to the signs that Violet was getting worse—either that or Ivy, in a show of independence, was intentionally ignoring her mother’s decline either to focus on her own affair with Little Charles, or even make a point that she can no longer be controlled by her parents.
Barbara marvels at how earlier, at the doctor’s office, Violet was silent and wounded, like a “wilting hothouse flower.” Barbara felt that Violet was trying to make her daughter look like the crazy one at the appointment, and Barbara jokes that she wanted to try and goad her mother into exhibiting some of the crazy behavior she displayed during dinner, going on about the claw hammer and the “Greatest Generation.” Barbara asks what makes her mother’s generation so great before reminiscing with her sisters about the last time their mother got checked into a psych ward and smuggled pills in by stashing a bottle in her vagina. Though the memory is dark, the sisters now laugh about it.
As the Weston sisters reminisce about their mother’s previous attempts to shirk the help being offered her and feed her addiction even in the face of medical intervention, their darkly amused reactions reveal that these three women are not bound by any truly happy memories, but rather only by the traumas their parents have put them through.
Karen tells Barbara that she’s sorry to hear about her marital strife—she asks Barbara if she thinks she and Bill will get back together. Barbara admits she doesn’t know. Karen admires their own parents for having stayed married for so long. Ivy points out that Beverly killed himself to escape his marriage.
Karen’s dimwittedness is on full display here, as she attempts to praise her parents for sticking together through the years—only to have the point that Beverly literally killed himself to escape their union pointed out to her.
Barbara asks Ivy outright if there is something going on between her and Little Charles, joking darkly that if there is, the two of them “shouldn’t consider children.” Ivy reveals that she couldn’t anyway—she had a hysterectomy last year after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Barbara and Karen are both shocked by the revelation—Ivy says she told no one at the time but Charles, and that’s when things started between them. Barbara asks why Ivy didn’t tell her or Karen—Ivy points out that Barbara hadn’t told either of them about her and Bill. Barbara insists the two things are different—divorce is an “embarrassing public admission of defeat” while cancer is simply cancer.
In this act—and in this scene in particular—Ivy will emerge as one of the most psychologically interesting characters within the play. She longs to escape the entrapment of her family, but in seeking romance with Little Charles, she only ends up burrowing further into it. At the same time, Ivy’s mind and sense of self-worth has been so warped by her abusive mother that it makes sense she would seek to pair with someone who intimately understands what it means to come from her family.
Barbara says that if Ivy had told them, she and Karen might have been able to offer her some comfort, but Ivy says she doesn’t feel connected to either of her sisters. Karen protests that she feels connected to both of them despite the fact that she’s not ever present. Ivy points out the hypocrisy in Karen’s New-Age-y reply, and states that she doesn’t want to “perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood” any longer. She feels their whole family is connected only by “a random selection of cells.”
Again, Ivy’s attitudes towards family are contradictory yet utterly intuitive. She feels trapped and suffocated by the omnipresence her family in her life, her thoughts, and her daily routine, yet at the same time feels completely disconnected from them because Violet has made her feel so isolated and othered over the years.
Barbara asks Ivy when she got so cynical; Ivy replies that perhaps it was when she realized that the burden of caring for their parents had fallen entirely to her, as she is the only one who stayed in Oklahoma. Ivy has been stuck here on the Plains while her sisters have gone off and done whatever it is they wanted to do. Ivy reveals that now, at last, it is her turn—she is going to leave for New York soon, and won’t feel any guilt at all. When Barbara asks what Ivy and Little Charles could possibly be planning to do in New York, Ivy replies that the two of them have something rare and extraordinary between them—“understanding.”
Ivy is indignant about the role that has been thrust upon her: that of reluctant caregiver. Ivy has felt trapped for years, and resentment and wanderlust have been brewing within her for a long time. She is now prepared to assert her independence by fleeing altogether—yet this move is not in her own best interest, as it involves making a commitment to an unorthodox (to say the least) relationship and a life in a foreign and demanding new place.
Barbara asks Ivy if she feels “comfortable” leaving Violet alone here. Ivy admits that she doesn’t, but also doesn’t want to stick around to see how much worse Violet is going to get without their father. Ivy tells Barbara that she can’t begin to imagine the effect of witnessing such madness and decay for so many years—and even if she could, she could only imagine it from the perspective of the “favorite.”
Ivy does not actually feel confident in her mother’s survival if Ivy leaves her to her own devices—and yet Ivy is past the point of caring, as she feels she has too long waited in the wings for her life to begin.
Barbara tells Ivy that the other day, Violet told her she was Beverly’s favorite. Ivy says that’s not true—Ivy herself was Beverly’s favorite, and Barbara is Violet’s favorite. Barbara is shocked, and Karen is disgruntled to not be anyone’s favorite. Barbara counters that Violet told her that Beverly was heartbroken when she moved to Boulder, but Ivy insists it was Violet who was actually “heartbroken,” not Beverly.
The revelation that Barbara is Violet’s “favorite” makes a strange kind of sense. Though Violet is abusive and abrasive towards Barb, it is Barbara she depends upon and Barbara whose presence elicits the most volatile, passionate response in Violet.
Karen, taking a stab at Ivy, tells Ivy that she must be taking Beverly’s suicide “kind of personally,” as his favorite. Ivy coolly says that Beverly killed himself for his own reasons—reasons she won’t pretend to know or presume to guess. Ivy says she is sure that Beverly is “better off” now, and doesn’t want to begrudge him that. Barbara, though, says she’s “furious” that Beverly selfishly left them. Ivy implies that Beverly never owed them anything, and perhaps didn’t even like any of them at all. Barbara says she believes Beverly had a responsibility “to something greater than himself,” as everyone does.
Though Barbara and Karen feel that Beverly’s suicide was a selfish move, Ivy does not begrudge her father the chance to claim agency over his own existence. Perhaps it is because Ivy has been denied this chance for so many years tha,t even though her father’s decision pains her, she believes his ability to make that decision at all was more important than her feelings about it could ever be.
Barbara asks Ivy when she and Little Charles are planning on leaving—Ivy says they could be leaving, perhaps, in just a few days. Barbara asks if Ivy is going to tell their mother about the affair, and Ivy answers that she’s trying to figure that out. Ivy tells Barbara that if Barbara is so concerned about Violet, she can stay in Oklahoma herself—Ivy is leaving, and nobody gets to point any fingers at her.
Ivy is desperate for a sense of agency after so many years of being pawns in other peoples’ stories. Even as she announces her confidence in her decision out loud, though, there is the underlying sense that she does have a great deal of anxiety about what people will think of her for abandoning her parents, just as her sisters did.
Violet enters the room, shaky but lucid. The girls invite her in and ask her how she’s feeling. Violet is behaving surprisingly normally; she sits with her daughters and tells them how it gives her a “warm feeling” to have all her girls under one roof. She tells them that she has always identified with her girls—no matter how old she gets, she remembers being a girl herself.
Violet—lucid for the first time in the entirety of the play thus far—reveals a new side of herself as she attempts to actually connect with her children and treat them with respect and empathy. The moment is intended to be as disorienting for the audience as it must be for the girls themselves.
Violet begins telling her daughters a story. When she was thirteen or so, she had a crush on a boy from the neighborhood who, though scrawny and goofy-looking, had a pair of incredible leather cowboy boots. The boots gave him self-confidence, and Violet was sure that if she could get a pair herself, he’d ask her to go steady. Violet found the boots in a store window, but of course couldn’t afford them. She began praying for them every night and begging her mother to buy them for her for Christmas. On Christmas morning, a box the size of a boot box, wrapped in nice paper, was under the tree. Violet tore open the box to find that it contained a pair of old, worn men’s work boots caked in mud. Her mother laughed at her, and kept laughing for days.
This short but poignant story reveals that Violet has her own history of being abused, belittled, and made to feel insignificant for the sake of someone else’s amusement, or to satisfy their sense of power. Violet’s dark past with her mother suggests a matrilineal inheritance of cruelty, abusiveness, and disregard in this family, and the question that must be on all the Weston women’s minds in this moment is whether it can ever be stopped.
Barbara tells Violet that the story is so sad it’s making her “wish for a heartwarming claw hammer story.” Violet says that her own mother was a mean woman, and she supposes that’s where she gets her own meanness from. Karen tells Violet she isn’t mean and kisses her on the cheek.
This is the closest Violet has yet come to apologizing to her children for her behavior. Karen, ever oblivious, attempts to make Violet feel as if there is no need to apologize—when in reality, Violet’s apology is significantly overdue.
Barbara asks Ivy and Karen to leave the room so that she can talk to Violet alone for a moment, and they oblige her. Barbara apologizes to Violet for losing her temper at dinner and taking things too far. Violet apologizes, too, admitting that she was “spoiling for a fight.” The two call a truce.
This rare moment of connection between Barbara and Violet hints at what their relationship could have been—one of mutual respect, rather than one defined by endlessly escalating grabs at power and attempts to degrade or disenfranchise the other.
Barbara asks Violet if she wants to check into a rehab center, but Violet insists she can get clean alone. She asks Barbara if she got rid of all her pills, and Barbara says everything they could find is gone. Violet insists that will be enough, and after a few days, she’ll be okay. Barbara admits that she can’t imagine what her mother’s going through and offers her any help she needs. Violet, though, begins getting angry, insisting she doesn’t need anyone’s help.
Despite her softness in the previous passages, Violet is as determined as ever in this moment to prove her strength, independence, and fortitude. She is committed to establishing dominance not just over others, for once, but over her own will.
Downstairs, Ivy walks into the living room, where Little Charles is watching TV. She joins him on the couch. Little Charles asks Ivy if she’s mad at him for nearly blowing things—she says she isn’t and takes his hand. Little Charles tells Ivy that he was just trying to be brave—he just wanted to let everyone know that he found the love he always wanted, and isn’t as big a loser as they all think he is. Ivy tells Little Charles that he is her hero.
Little Charles and Ivy are each another’s support system in such a volatile, miserable environment. Despite her fear at the dinner table, Ivy is not mad at Little Charles—she only wants to build him up, and does not subject him to the abuse and criticism the rest of the family does.
Little Charles goes over to the electric piano and asks Ivy to come sit beside him. He plays her a love song he’s written for her. In the middle of it, Mattie Fae and Charlie walk into the room and break the spell. She tells Little Charles to get himself together—they are all going home to take care of the dogs. Ivy invites them all to stay at her place, but Mattie Fae insists on going home. She sees that the television is on, and remarks that Little Charles watches so much television he’s rotted his brain. She makes fun of him for watching silly game shows and says it’s too bad there isn’t a job where they pay you to sit and watch TV.
Little Charles and Ivy seem to have a truly sweet, loving relationship—but as Mattie Fae enters the room and sees them connecting, she does everything she can to belittle Little Charles and make him seem unappealing to Ivy. Whether she is doing this because she senses romance between them or whether she simply wants to deny Little Charles a chance at connection remains unclear, but either interpretation reveals Mattie Fae’s possessiveness and desire for power.
Charlie tries to get Mattie Fae to quit picking on Little Charles, but she will not stop. Charlie raises his voice, telling Mattie Fae that if she says one more thing to Little Charles he is going to kick her into the highway. Mattie Fae, stunned, turns to face Charlie. Charlie tells Ivy and Little Charles to leave the room, and they do. Barbara is about to enter the room, but hearing a fight brewing, she hovers in the doorway unseen instead.
Charlie has witnessed a lot of emotional abuse in one day, and perhaps it is because of this that he is more keenly aware of the ways in which Mattie Fae abuses their own child. He calls her out on it, in keeping with the day’s tradition of telling truths and exposing faults.
Charlie tells Mattie Fae that he can’t understand her meanness. He is baffled by the way both Mattie Fae and Violet talk to their own family and remarks that his family never treated one another so terribly. Charlie tells Mattie Fae that to tear into Little Charles on a day like today—a day when their family buried a man whom Charlie “loved very much”—dishonors Beverly’s memory. Charlie warns Mattie Fae that if she “can’t find a generous place” in her heart for Little Charles, Charlie himself will leave her. He heads out to the car.
Charlie is a decent man who remains constantly bewildered by the terrible way the members of his wife’s family treats one another. Charlie does not want to see any more emotional violence or abuse—especially directed at his own child—and his stern warning to Mattie Fae forces her to reckon with the pain she has caused not just Little Charles, but her own husband as well.
Mattie Fae sees Barbara standing in the doorway. Barbara apologizes for eavesdropping, insisting she simply froze when she heard what was happening. Mattie Fae asks Barbara if Barbara thinks that something is going on between Ivy and Little Charles. Barbara attempts to deflect the question, but Mattie Fae asks Barbara to just come on out with the truth. Barbara confirms her aunt’s suspicions. Mattie Fae says that a relationship between the two of them “can’t happen.”
Mattie Fae has clearly picked up on Little Charles and Ivy’s energy towards one another, and she seeks confirmation from Barbara about her fears. Barbara is now the head of the family in Mattie Fae’s eyes, and as such possesses the answers to her questions.
Barbara points out that both Ivy and Little Charles have both always been different, and perhaps have found solace in one another at last. She then tells Mattie Fae that Ivy and Little Charles are in love—or at least they think they are. Barbara says she knows it’s “unorthodox” for cousins to get together these days and seems to be about to suggest that Mattie Fae give the relationship a chance, but Mattie Fae cuts her off, revealing that Little Charles and Ivy are not cousins.
Barbara—who was skeptical of Little Charles and Ivy’s relationship just moments ago—seems to have come around to the idea that the two perhaps do bring each other real comfort. Though their relationship is taboo, the Weston family’s transgressions against one another are so great that perhaps, in Barbara’s view, a genuine loving connection between two of its members might not be the worst thing in the world. This view is about to be challenged, though, by the information Mattie Fae is soon to reveal.
Mattie Fae tells a shocked Barbara that Little Charles is not Barbara and Ivy’s cousin, but rather their half-brother. Little Charles is Beverly’s child. Barbara asks Mattie Fae if she’s sure, and Mattie Fae says she is. Barbara is stunned that Mattie Fae and Beverly had an affair, and asks who else knows about it. Mattie Fae insists that now that Beverly is dead, it is only she herself and now Barbara who know—Charlie is oblivious.
This shocking revelation—a twist on a twist—is meant to show just how deep and unending the Weston family’s vortex of lies and secrets truly is. The implications this revelation has for the cause of Beverly’s suicide and the tension between Mattie Fae and Little Charles breaks open a whole new horrifying set of possibilities for Barbara.
Barbara asks if Beverly knew that Little Charles was his, and Mattie Fae admits that he did. Barbara asks if it was a one-time thing, if they were drunk, but Mattie Fae reminds Barbara that there is more to her than just “old fat Aunt Mattie Fae.” Mattie Fae admits that she is disproportionately disappointed in Little Charles, but wonders if perhaps she’s more disappointed for him than by him.
Mattie Fae reveals herself, in this passage, to be self-aware enough to admit that her harsh, abusive treatment towards Little Charles stems more from her feelings of self-loathing, regret, and disappointment in her own actions rather than anything Little Charles has actually done.
Barbara warns Mattie Fae that Ivy will be “destroy[ed]” by this information if it ever reaches her. Mattie Fae says that she herself would never tell Ivy—but begs Barbara to find a way to put a stop to the relationship. When Barbara asks why it has to be her burden, Mattie Fae replies, matter-of-factly, that Barbara said she was “running things.”
As Mattie Fae reminds Barbara that she claimed to be “running things” in the last act, there is a tongue-in-cheek challenge to her words. She wants to see, perhaps, if Barbara is up to the task of heading this family—and to absolve herself of her role in this terrible secret as well.