It's a warm Sunday afternoon in December. Bubba, a young woman of twenty-two, is busy tying ribbon onto walking stick candies (candy canes) in a decorated living room while Pearl, an older woman dressed in her "good black" dress, sits on the sofa, smokes, and reads a magazine. Bubba begins to stare at Pearl. When Pearl looks up and catches Bubba staring, she asks Bubba "well?" in a hostile tone. Bubba turns back to her walking sticks. From upstairs, Olive yells to ask Bubba if she's seen her silver earrings, but Olive finds them.
From the first few lines, the play makes it abundantly clear that the power dynamics at work are very much based on the characters' relative ages. Bubba's activity (and nickname) is one that the play will consider childish, while Pearl's clothing and activities are comparatively adult. Pearl also seems assured that she's more senior and more important than Bubba, which shows that Pearl believes that age brings power.
Bubba smiles nervously at Pearl and explains that Olive always gets nervous, and that she and Nancy always had to make jokes to pull Olive out of her mood. Bubba continues, saying that Olive is probably more nervous than usual because she's worrying about how Pearl will fit in. Pearl snaps that she doesn't have to fit in, she's just here for a visit. Bubba assures Pearl that Olive hasn't said anything otherwise. In reply, Pearl tells Bubba to not be nasty, which surprises Bubba. Bubba sullenly explains that she wasn't being nasty, she was just thinking about how it used to be when Nancy was here. Pearl confirms that thinking that is nasty, and Bubba assures Pearl that there's nothing nasty about the layoff season or about Nancy.
The joke is on Olive, of course: Pearl's edginess and clothing choices suggest that she absolutely won't fit in and further, that she doesn't want to. When she calls Bubba nasty, Pearl is primarily taking offense to Bubba treating Pearl as though they both have an equal right to be here and to have this conversation—in effect, Pearl feels threatened that Bubba won't acknowledge Pearl's superior maturity. It's important to note that the layoff season is something normal and good in Bubba's mind, not something improper like Pearl implies.
From upstairs, Olive calls that she's coming down. She swishes into the room in a pretty green and white dress and asks Pearl and Bubba what they think. Eager for a new topic of conversation, Bubba hastily compliments Olive's look. Pearl deems the dress "not her taste," but says it's pretty. Olive decides this dress will have to do since she doesn't have time to change. She looks the room over and says that she needs to bring in the beer. Bubba volunteers to get it and abandons her walking sticks.
In comparison to Pearl's "good black" dress, Olive's clothing choices show that she's purposefully trying to look youthful. Again, Pearl shows that she believes that age is a good and powerful thing by implying that youth (as represented by Olive's dress) isn't to her taste. By calling it "pretty," Pearl suggests that performing youth like this is superficial (and in Olive’s case, it usually is).
Olive says fondly that Bubba is a good kid, and Pearl says that Bubba isn't as innocent as she seems. Olive is somewhat surprised, but insists that Bubba is only a baby. Pearl declares that if her daughter, Vera, had spoken like Bubba did, she'd spank her. Olive again insists that Bubba is just the kid next door, has been running in and out of the house since she was a toddler, and treats Barney and Roo like uncles.
While there's no way to know who's correct here, it's apparent that it's never occurred to Olive that Bubba is growing up. Instead, she holds onto the ideal in her mind that Bubba is still a child, something that Pearl as an outsider sees is obviously false. This sets up the main conflict between Pearl and Olive: Pearl sees what's objectively real; Olive sees only a nostalgic ideal.
Olive begins laughing and calls Pearl a "cautious Kate" when she notices that Pearl's suitcases are still sitting by the stairs. Pearl primly says that she's taken her overnight bag to her room, but won't take her cases up until she's sure. Olive assures Pearl that "he" is alright, but Pearl insists that she’ll find that out for herself. She asks Olive for a photo that Olive promised to share, and Olive fetches the photo from a drawer. Olive explains that the photo was taken at an amusement park two years ago. When Pearl asks, Olive explains that Nancy was drunk. Pearl says that Nancy looks like the sort who'd get sick in public, and Olive explains that Nancy was just a good sport and that Barney was fond of her.
Pearl's intense discomfort throws Olive's normalization of what's happening into sharp relief: Olive sees no problem with a woman becoming drunk enough to vomit in public, while Pearl implies that doing so is very improper. This shows that both Pearl and Olive have very distinct ideas about what constitutes femininity: for Pearl, a feminine lady is one who is proper, while for Olive, a lady should be a “good sport” and attractive to men. It's also important to note that Olive isn't helping Pearl to feel welcome by bringing up Nancy here, which makes it more apparent that Pearl is an outsider.
Pearl is unimpressed. She remarks on the close way that Barney is holding Nancy in the photo, and Olive tells Pearl that Roo and Barney are cane-cutters, not professors. Pearl sits and declares that Barney will never her touch her like that in public, and Olive insists that Pearl hasn't met anyone as charming as Barney. Pearl says that Barney's charm didn't stop Nancy from getting married.
Olive asserts here that Barney's charm is capable of overpowering propriety in some cases—and she specifically ties this charm to Barney's masculinity, as evidenced by bringing up where Barney works. He works in the Australian bush, an environment classically gendered as masculine.
Olive says that Nancy's decision to get married was a mistake, even if there was no hope of ever marrying Barney. Pearl says that it's likely Barney didn't marry Nancy because Nancy probably made herself “cheap.” Pearl continues, saying that from what Olive has said about Barney, he needs desperately to be married and "taken in hand."
Again, Pearl paints single women as people who are behaving wrongly, and here she even blames Barney's single status on Nancy's "bad" behavior. This shows that Pearl sees marriage as the only appropriate result of a romantic relationship.
Bubba walks in with her arms full of cold beer bottles. Olive helps her set them on the table, despite Pearl's insistence that they'll leave water rings. Olive asks Bubba if she's done her walking sticks. Pearl asks what they're for, and Bubba seems embarrassed as she starts to explain. Olive takes over and says that when Bubba was five, she was jealous of the gifts that Barney and Roo brought, especially the kewpie doll on a walking stick. To placate her, Barney and Roo brought a walking stick for Bubba until she was fifteen, at which point they seemed not to realize she was too old for kids' candy. To "teach them a lesson," Olive had Bubba prepare walking sticks to give to Barney and Roo when they arrived. After that they started bringing perfume or gloves for Bubba, but Olive still gets her doll every year. Pearl is unimpressed.
Again, Pearl shows how caught up she is in performing responsible adulthood, while Olive is much more concerned with properly setting the room up for a party: a youthful concern. The story about the walking sticks (candy canes) shows that in some situations at least, the usual layoff crew does accept that some of their members are getting older—though they do so with a symbol of childhood. Similarly, Olive's yearly kewpie doll is a symbol of her continuing youthfulness (or attempts to cling to youthfulness), particularly when she says that the 15-years-younger Bubba gets adult gifts like gloves and perfume.
Bubba seems ashamed, and asks Olive if she can do anything else. When Olive says everything's ready, Bubba says she'll come back after tea, and leaves. Olive looks at the sky getting dark and wonders where her mother (Emma) is, since she was supposed to have been home from her community choir long ago. Pearl checks her watch and is alarmed to find it's after 6:00pm. Olive wonders if her mother went to meet Roo and Barney at the airport, and says that she'll have gotten money out of the men before they find a taxi. When Pearl insists that that's not a kind thing to say about one's mother, Olive insists that her mother gets all sorts of money out of Roo and Barney while they're here, and Roo at least seems to like it.
Bubba is hyper-aware that Pearl doesn't see the charm in the layoff traditions, which in turn makes her question the traditions themselves. This begins to illustrate how the introduction of an outside perspective can begin to cause questions about deeply entrenched beliefs and traditions, something that this group of friends has seemingly never had. Pearl continues to police Olive's words and actions because they don't fit her view of appropriate femininity.
Olive turns on the radio and looks at a photograph of Roo. She declares that he has the handsomest mouth in the world. As Pearl inspects her makeup, she says that Roo looks like a better prospect than "the other one," and Olive insists that you can't compare Roo and Barney. She says that Roo's a "big man" and runs his own gang of cane-cutters, but Barney's the ladies' man and makes people laugh. Pearl says that Barney shouldn't count on anything since she hasn't made her mind up yet.
Olive shows here that she enjoys a highly idealized view of both Roo and Barney: in her mind they're both exceptionally handsome and worthwhile partners. It's also worth noting that the qualities she lists here are ones that will, over the course of the play, be shown to be no longer true. This suggests that at this point, Olive is unable or unwilling to see that anything will change.
Pearl asks why people call Barney Barney. Olive isn't sure, but says his real name is Arthur. She excitedly offers that Roo's real name is Reuben, and Pearl remarks that it's a Biblical name. Olive acts politely surprised and hears a car honking outside. She looks out the window and realizes it's a car up the road, not Roo and Barney. Olive surveys the table and hurries to the kitchen to fetch food and glasses, singing along with the radio. Pearl picks up the photo and frowns at it, and when Olive returns, Olive cautions her that she'll start hating Barney before he even arrives.
Olive's lack of genuine interest in Pearl's comment about Roo's name shows that she's entirely uninterested in feeding or rewarding Pearl's desire to think of the layoff season in "adult" terms. The fact that Roo has a Biblical name is little more than a fun tidbit for her, while for Pearl, it's indicative of the possibility that Roo (and possibly, Barney) might be able to be “tamed.”
Pearl insists that she won't hate Barney, but she's not getting involved in a "nasty mess" either. Olive is offended, and Pearl explains that she has Vera to worry about—if Vera knows that her mother is doing something wrong, she'll do wrong things too. Olive angrily turns off the radio and says she won't stand for "the respectable mother stunt."
Olive's ultimatum is clear: Pearl accepts that the layoff season is a youthful escape from the (adult) real world, or she gets out. Having a mother around who's intent on policing the morality of the season is a direct threat to Olive's sense of tradition and her enjoyment of the summer.
Olive loudly continues that Pearl keeps making the layoff season sound dirty and low. Pearl insists that it's not decent—marriage is decent. Olive shudders and agrees that marriage is different from the layoff season, but says that she gets five months of heaven every year. She explains that Roo and Barney work hard for seven months and then come down to live. Olive says that she's compared what she has to what married women have, and believes it's more exciting waiting for Roo to come than anything she'd experience in a marriage. Turning to Pearl, Olive says that she either needs to be polite or leave. Olive opens a bottle of beer, and Pearl looks uneasy.
Pearl confirms for the reader her belief that marriage is the only appropriate relationship for men and women to have. Olive, on the other hand, prioritizes excitement over stability or propriety through marriage. This again makes it clear that she's trying very hard to play the role of a woman much younger than she actually is. Similarly, Pearl's insistence on critiquing the layoff season for its questionable morality makes her seem years older than Olive.
Pearl says she isn't sure how the summer is going to go if she can't voice opinions. Olive pours two glasses of beer as Pearl continues to defend voicing an opinion, but Olive shoves a glass at her and tells Pearl to stop talking if she can't make sense. Pearl indignantly reminds Olive that Roo and Barney don't write while they're gone, and Olive simply says that they don't have to because they're real men. Pearl insists there's no difference, but Olive recounts with pride what Nancy used to say about Roo and Barney: she'd be in the pub with the "soft city blokes" drinking, and when Roo and Barney walked in, the other men would stand aside for them like they were kings.
Here, Olive creates a very clear definition of what constitutes a “real” versus a “soft” man, and she ties it primarily to where they work and live. Barney and Roo are real men because they work out in the bush and come to the city only for pleasure, while the "soft city blokes" are less masculine because they live and work in the city. In this way, Olive also suggests that the city men support and acknowledge these notions of masculinity.
Olive sighs about Nancy, and Pearl asks if Nancy got what she wanted. Olive says she'd like to ask Nancy if sitting chained to her husband is worth missing the excitement of waiting for Roo and Barney. Pearl awkwardly apologizes for offending Olive, and Olive says that Pearl reminded her of her mother. Pearl commiserates, and says she had an aunt that was similarly prone to bringing up "unsuitable" matches at funerals. Olive finishes her beer as they hear a car horn from the street. She hides her glass and tells Pearl to drink her beer.
Pearl's comment about her aunt suggests that Pearl was possibly once as willfully youthful as Olive is now—though she's apparently outgrown it. This shows that Pearl might have more empathy for Olive and/or the situation than she lets on, but is also aware that growing up is certainly a possibility (or necessity) for the other characters.
Barney appears in the doorway, carrying Emma over his shoulder. Emma pretends to be angry. Barney asks where the garbage is, and Olive laughs and lets them in. When Roo enters, Olive steps into his arms and they kiss. Pearl watches Barney and Emma apprehensively as Barney lets Emma down. Barney tells Emma to stop playing as he eyes Pearl, and finally sends Emma to help with the luggage. Emma doesn't move, and stays to watch Barney approach Pearl. Pearl introduces herself as “Missus Cunningham,” and offers Barney her hand awkwardly. He takes it and holds it, smiling warmly at her as they exchange pleasantries. Emma cackles and leaves for the kitchen.
Even the 70-year-old Emma participates in the childish shenanigans of the layoff season, something that's understandably unsettling for Pearl. When Pearl introduces herself using her last name, she insists that Barney think of her as being a proper adult and not a “girl” like Olive. When Barney doesn't miss a beat in this interaction, it shows how confident he is that his masculinity will win Pearl over and encourage her to “let loose” and behave more youthfully.
Olive turns towards Pearl and Barney and asks if they've met, and Barney shares that he's introduced himself to "Missus Cunningham." Olive insists that he call her Pearl, and Barney asks why they didn't come to meet them at the airport. He winks at Pearl, who isn't sure what to do. Olive introduces Pearl and Roo, and Pearl begins to relax a little. Barney grabs one of Bubba's walking sticks off the mantel and asks where she is before stepping onto the back verandah to call for her. Bubba laughs and yells greetings from her house to Barney and Roo, and Olive calls the men back inside.
Pearl's discomfort stems from the fact that she realizes she's witnessing a very old, established ritual. Though the men politely greeted Pearl, she's painfully aware that she doesn't know the routine. However, by acting so uptight and proper, Pearl only makes this even more apparent to everyone involved, and makes the others more defensive about their usual rituals.
Barney hugs Olive and calls her his favorite barmaid, and Olive jokingly explains that Pearl works at the same bar as she does. Barney sits happily next to Pearl and says it's just like the old days. Pearl looks unsettled as Emma rushes in and accuses Olive of stealing vinegar. Olive insists it was only a little for the salad and reminds her mother that she wasn't supposed to pick the men up at the airport. Emma imperiously insists that they wouldn't have gotten to the house at all if she hadn't gotten them, but Barney cuts her off. Roo reminds Emma that she can afford to buy more vinegar, and Emma threatens to file a police report if she finds more vinegar gone. This seems a usual threat, and Emma stomps off to the kitchen.
Pearl's unsettled look comes from hearing Barney accept and imply that Pearl is only here to replace Nancy: Pearl isn't here to be herself, she's here to fill a role. Barney's happiness at all of this shows that he currently shares Olive's optimism that things will go as planned and that Pearl will simply step up to replace Nancy. In turn, this is indicative of how Barney idealizes the layoff season, just like Olive does. Essentially, he can't imagine why Pearl wouldn't want to be Nancy.
Roo moves to take bags upstairs, but Olive asks him to only take up his own and not Barney's. Roo heads upstairs and Olive gives Barney a telegram. Olive asks Pearl to go check on Emma and the salad, and Barney sighs and says the telegram is from Nancy. He asks Olive where Nancy lives now, and Olive insists he needs to concentrate on Pearl. Barney seems unconcerned, even when Olive says that Pearl refuses to take her bags upstairs and is concerned that she's setting a bad example for her eighteen-year-old daughter. Barney seems disgusted, and asks if Pearl is "one of them," but Olive insists Pearl just has principles and wants to reform Barney. She continues, saying that Pearl wants to marry, and Barney is incredulous but believes that Pearl will take to him.
Olive thinks of Pearl as a means to an end. Per Olive's reasoning, if Pearl takes to Barney, then the layoff season will continue as it always has, even with Pearl's reservations. However, despite Nancy's absence, the other characters are still very much aware of her ghostly presence. This ensures that the remaining characters will be unable to forget that things are indeed different, as they cannot escape their thoughts of Nancy. Barney's insistence that Pearl will accept him shows his belief in the power of his masculinity. Like Olive, he believes it will be stronger than Pearl's desire for decency (or even her preferences as an individual).
Barney sits and tells Olive that what Emma said about needing her to make it home was true, and Roo is broke. He sighs and continues that it was an awful season: Roo strained his back, fired one of his regular workers, Tony Moreno, and then hired a young man named Johnnie Dowd. Johnnie was fast enough to make Roo seem like a has-been, and it escalated into a running fight between Roo and Johnnie. Barney says that two months ago, Roo and Johnnie fought because Johnnie laughed when Roo fell. After the other men broke up the fight, Roo walked off and didn't meet up with Barney again until a week ago. Olive is surprised Barney didn't walk off with Roo, and Barney explains that things were messed up and he'd never seen Roo be wrong before.
On the men's side, the layoff season has also changed before it even begins, since Roo doesn't have the money saved that he usually does, and he has suffered a major blow to his masculinity. Barney and Olive also gloss over the fact that Johnnie is young, which makes Roo sound old. Particularly since this all came about because Roo hurt his back, this shows them actively ignoring the fact that their bodies are aging. When Barney didn't walk off with Roo, Barney rejected his friendship with Roo in favor of upholding the traditional way they go about their year, something that seems troubling to everyone.
Barney says that when they met in Brisbane, Roo had already spent all his money drinking. Barney says that he thinks Roo resents him for not walking out with him, and Olive glares at him accusingly. Barney insists he needed the money, and made things worse by telling Roo that the boys made Johnnie "ganger" (boss) in Roo's place, and that Johnnie did a great job. Roo appears behind Barney and sarcastically asks about Johnnie, and then tells Barney not to blab. Olive insists that she asked, and tells Barney to take his luggage upstairs to the back room. Barney jokes about his subpar lodgings.
Olive apparently shares Roo's sense of betrayal, which shows that she values the friendship between the men as well as the traditional way the group does things. Barney didn't follow Roo for practical reasons, however, which shows that he's beginning to think about his life in a more adult way. This situates the adults here in a very precarious place, as they're all partially aware that they're aging, but not quite sure what to do with that fact.
Barney leaves, and Roo seems embarrassed. Olive asks why Roo went to Melbourne instead of coming to her. Roo explains he has a cousin there, but Olive is angry that Roo didn't come to her. She starts crying and Roo comforts her. He insists that he won't take money from her and says he'll get a job, but says they can talk about it tomorrow. He suggests they open beer, and Olive giggles and explains that she and Pearl already started drinking. Roo and Olive start laughing, and Roo turns on the radio. They call everyone into the living room to eat, and Barney passes Roo the seventeenth doll to give to Olive. When Roo gives it to Olive, she cries out happily.
Again, Roo's decision to go to Melbourne is seen as a betrayal of both his relationship with Olive and the traditional way things are done in the group. When Roo says he won't take money from Olive, it begins to create the sense that Roo is very prideful, something supported by Roo's apparent displeasure that Barney shared the situation with Olive at all. At this point, nobody appears to take Roo's suggestions that he'll get a job seriously—nobody believes he'd compromise his prideful masculinity and the tradition of a leisurely layoff season like that.