In a large, old country house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma—sixty miles northwest of Tulsa—Beverly Weston sits in his office. He is drunk, and he nurses a glass of whiskey as he interviews Johnna Monevata, a young Native American woman he hopes to hire as a housekeeper. He rambles on and on to Johnna about his favorite writers and poets. Beverly himself is a writer, and his office is full of piles of books. Beverly quotes T.S. Eliot specifically, musing on Eliot’s assertion that “life is very long.”
In the play’s prologue, the Weston family’s patriarch, Beverly, is clearly struggling. His home is in disarray, and he is drunk in the middle of the day. His preoccupation with the Eliot quote about the long nature of life allows the audience to see that Beverly views his own life as interminable and inescapable.
Elsewhere in the house, Beverly’s wife Violet can be heard muttering, cursing, and stumbling around. Off of Johnna’s confused look, Beverly explains that his wife takes pills, while he himself drinks—this is the “bargain” the two of them have struck. Beverly clarifies that he does not drink because his wife takes pills, nor does she take pills because he drinks—the reasons they partake “are inconsequential.” Beverly explains to Johnna that his own drinking and his wife’s pill addiction have made the staples of the “traditional American routine”—paying bills, purchasing groceries, housekeeping, and laundry—not just burdensome but impossible for the two of them. It is for this reason that Beverly is reluctantly searching for a housekeeper.
Beverly’s frank confession to Johnna sets the stage for the play’s atmosphere of stark bleakness. Beverly does not want to get better—he does not want Johnna to help him and his wife to cope with their addictions, but rather hopes that she will take care of the banalities of their lives so that they can focus on diving even deeper into them. Beverly is looking for Johnna to help facilitated his and Violet’s declines—an odd job, indeed.
Beverly notices Johnna sweating, and offers her a handkerchief to wipe her brow. He apologizes for the temperature in the house. It is sweltering hot—his wife, he says, does not believe in air conditioning, and has taped the edges of the shades throughout the house with black duct tape.
The miserable heat within the house will come to function as a recurrent symbol of the constricting, suffocating atmosphere in the Weston home—not just physically, but emotionally, as well.
Violet comes into the room, smoking a cigarette, mumbling, and asking if the police are at the house. When she sees Johnna, she expresses surprise that there is a woman in the house. Violet’s speech is slurred and disordered, and she asks odd and inappropriate questions of Johnna, calling attention to Johnna’s Native heritage. She is clearly very high. When Beverly calmly suggests Violet go back to bed, she explodes violently, telling him to “fuck a fucking sow’s ass.” Recognizing her own outburst, Violet apologizes to Beverly, and to Johnna. She promises Johnna that in the future, she’ll be “sickly sweet,” and leaves the room.
The audience’s first introduction to Violet allows them to glimpse her in her worst, most vulnerable state. Completely addled by her abuse of narcotics, Violet vacillates rapidly between inappropriate nitpicking, violent outbursts, and moments of “sweetness.” Violet is portrayed off the bat as an unstable woman uncomfortable with change.
After Violet exits, Beverly reminds Johnna that he has only called her because Violet’s doctor, Dr. Burke, specifically recommended Johnna as someone qualified to handle Violet’s needs. Johnna tells Beverly that she has a year toward a nursing certificate but had to drop out when her father died. Beverly goes over the requirements of the job with Johnna once more—she will be expected to be a live-in maid and will need to observe the “unusual hours” kept in the Weston household. Beverly warns Johnna that he and his wife try not to differentiate between night and day—they have taped up the shades in order to keep up this illusion—and that Johnna may have difficulty maintaining “any sort of a healthy routine.” Johnna accepts these conditions, saying she needs the work.
As Beverly lays out the requirements of the position more specifically, Letts shows how Johnna’s financial desperation contributes to her accepting a job that seems not only frightening but actually dangerous. Beverly warns Johnna that there is the chance that she will become sucked into his and Violet’s vortex, and that her life will become “unhealthy”—but generational trauma, poverty, and abuse have forced Johnna’s hand, and she will take this job whether or not she wants it.
Beverly tells Johnna that he himself needs very little help or attention—the bulk of the job will be attending to Violet, who has been diagnosed with cancer and needs to be driven back and forth from Tulsa for chemotherapy appointments. Johnna asks what kind of cancer Violet has—Beverly, amused, reveals that the “punch line” is that Violet has mouth cancer. When Johnna asks what pills Violet takes, Beverly rattles off an extensive list which includes Valium, Vicodin, Percocet, Xanax, and OxyContin.
Violet’s mouth cancer is a cruel joke. For a woman who spews so much vitriol, it is fitting—and even darkly funny—that her mouth has become cancerous and diseased.
Beverly takes a long gulp of his drink and tells Johnna that Violet is in denial about her addiction to pharmaceuticals. She tried to quit once before, but once she got sober, she chose to return to “this reality” almost immediately—the reality of her addiction. Beverly wearily stands up and goes over to a bookshelf. He tells Johnna that his books are his “last refuge,” then pulls a volume of T.S. Eliot from the shelf and gives it to her. He tells her that it’s not required reading, but for her own enjoyment. He then trails off into a dark recitation of an Eliot poem: “Here we go round the prickly pear,” he says again and again, as the scene fades to black.
Whereas Beverly owns his identity as an addict and even expresses his desire to stoke and protect his addiction, he warns Johnna that Violet is in denial. This foreshadows the pain that will surface when her family inevitably tries to get her help. As Beverly quotes “here we go round the quickly pear,” his speech simulates a whirling vortex—the whirlpool of his and Violet’s addiction and dysfunction which threatens to drag Johnna—and the audience—deep into its heart.