The novel begins in the spring of 1955 in western Connecticut, where a newly established amateur theater company called the “Laurel Players” finishes its dress rehearsal of its first play The Petrified Forest. The director tells the anxious cast that they have finally mastered the play, and they are relieved. The Laurel Players have taken the play very seriously, fearing they would make fools of themselves, and they have put a lot of effort and money into the production which they have spent the winter rehearsing. But up until this point it seemed that the play would be a failure.
The novel begins by describing an anxious social environment. The actors in the Laurel Players are clearly affluent adults who can spare time and energy for purely recreational activities like putting on a play. On top of that, they are not acting purely for enjoyment, but with a strong desire to succeed. The play is meant to prove something about their own talents to themselves or those around them.
The next night, an audience of young, healthy and well-off suburbanites enters the high school ready to enjoy a night of theater. They feel the establishment of a good community theater is an important event for their area. At first, the play seems to the audience to be a success, although the cast sees that things are off to a bad start. Especially its female lead, an elegant twenty-nine-year-old blonde named April Wheeler, performs splendidly. Her husband Franklin Wheeler watches anxiously from the back row. The leading man has the flu, however, and the director plays his part badly, throwing all the other actors off.
The audience takes the play just as seriously as the actors do. They feel that, if the new community theater is successful, this will reflect well on the place where they live and, indirectly, on themselves. No one is as nervous, however, as Frank, who wants his wife’s performance to reflect his own sophistication. Both the quality of the acting and the reaction of the audience feel acutely personal to Frank, even though he himself is not involved.
As April realizes that the play is falling apart, her performance also falters. Another distractingly bad performance is put in by Shep Campbell, who all the Laurel Players had only allowed to be a part of the production because he and his wife Milly were enthusiastic participants. During the curtain call, April looks tense and unhappy. As the uncomfortable audience members file out of the auditorium, the real-estate broker Mrs. Helen Givings can be heard repeating “very nice” over and over.
While the performers and audience seem to realize that the play was a failure, Helen Givings responds by trying to put on a bright face and praise the performance. We will see that this refusal to acknowledge unpleasant truths is characteristic of Helen, but also of this entire society, which sees unhappiness or misfortune as something abnormal and shameful.