The play begins with three women—Olive, Pearl, and Bubba (who is younger than the other two)—awaiting the arrival of Barney and Roo. Every summer for the last sixteen years Barney and Roo have spent their “layoff season” (when they are released from their jobs cane-cutting for a few months) at Olive’s house, which is owned by her mother, Emma. Roo is dating Olive, and Barney usually dates Nancy, but this year Nancy has gotten married and abandoned the layoff season, so Olive has invited her co-worker Pearl as a companion for Barney. Bubba lives next door, and was only a small child when the layoff seasons began.
The action opens with Bubba tying ribbons on candy canes in the living room (a tradition of the layoff season) while Pearl, dressed in her good black dress, reads a magazine. Olive comes downstairs and shows Pearl a photo of Barney, Roo, Nancy, and Olive drunk at an amusement park. Pearl isn't impressed. Olive insists that Nancy made a mistake getting married. In reply, Pearl insists that Nancy "made herself cheap" and says that Barney needs to be taken in hand. Bubba, who has gone to fetch beer, returns as Pearl asks what the candy canes are for. Bubba is embarrassed as Olive explains that it's an inside joke they play on Roo and Barney, while Pearl continues to act superior and standoffish. Bubba heads home. Pearl studies the photograph again and says she's not getting involved in a "nasty mess." Olive angrily calls Pearl out on playing the part of a respectable mother (Pearl has an eighteen-year-old daughter, Vera), and tries to explain that the layoff season isn't indecent: it's magical and perfect. She tells Pearl to be polite or leave, and pours them both beer.
Barney enters the house carrying Emma over his shoulder, and Roo enters behind. Roo and Olive kiss while Barney and Pearl introduce themselves. Pearl introduces herself as "Missus Cunningham," but Olive insists that Pearl go by her first name. Olive gives Barney a telegram from Nancy. Barney becomes serious and tells Olive that Roo is broke after he walked out on his job two months ago. Roo had fought with a new young employee named Johnnie Dowd after hurting his back. Roo returns from fetching luggage and seems embarrassed, and Olive gets upset that Roo didn't come to her when he walked out. They make up and call the others into the room to eat, and Roo gives Olive her seventeenth kewpie doll (another layoff season tradition for the group).
The next morning, Olive, dressed for work, tells Roo that Pearl didn't like Barney's drinking or the fact that he tried to go in her bedroom late at night. Olive picks up the seventeenth doll and insists that while the other dolls are pretty, this one is beautiful.
When Olive leaves, Emma talks to Roo and offers him a loan. Roo refuses. Bubba stops in to leave an envelope of photos from Nancy's wedding. She asks Roo to give it to Barney and not let Olive see. Bubba asks if the layoff season is going to be the same this year without Nancy, and Roo assures her it will be. Bubba leaves and Barney comes downstairs and insists he doesn't remember banging on Pearl's door. Roo says he's going get a job, and Barney is aghast—the layoff season is supposed to be a break from working. Barney offers Roo money instead, and says that Roo is just mad at Barney for not joining him when Roo walked off the job cane-cutting. Roo huffs upstairs as Olive comes to tell Barney that he needs to sweet-talk Pearl into staying.
Pearl appears and tells Barney she doesn't approve of his "de facto wives"—he has three children with three different women. Barney tells her he has a lot of love to give, and isn't just out to take love. He begins to tell Pearl the three qualities he thinks a woman needs, but Olive appears and cuts him off. While Pearl fetches her purse, Olive and Barney commiserate that Roo is getting a job during the layoff season. As Pearl, Olive, and Roo leave, Pearl asks Barney to take her suitcases to her room—she’s decided to stay.
On New Year's Eve, the group sits quietly in the living room listening to children playing outside. Barney suggests they go to the beach, but nobody is interested. Pearl says she’s knitting a sweater for Barney’s son. Bubba enters, dressed to go out, and explains that she's going to a social dance but would prefer to stay in. She suggests they all go to the Morrises’ before leaving. Pearl asks who the Morrises are, and Olive finally snaps that they're Nancy's cousins, so the group won’t be going. A few minutes later, Pearl recounts a time that Olive referred to Barney and Roo as “eagles” coming down every year for the mating season, but this makes everyone else uncomfortable. Pearl goes on to say that the things they've done and the places they've gone haven't been as fantastic as Olive told her they'd be. Olive angrily tells Pearl to stop and decides to go to bed, but Barney suggests they have Emma come in to play piano, so they can sing.
Emma agrees, but after they start a song the second time, Emma insists that someone is singing off key, and leaves in a huff when Olive suggests that she's off. Barney suggests they open beer, and Olive and Pearl go to the kitchen to get snacks. In their absence, Barney tells Roo that he met up with “the boys” (other cane-cutters from their job) in the pub by coincidence, and asks if Roo would agree to go out with them and Johnnie Dowd. Roo is angry and wants nothing to do with Johnnie, and he becomes even more so when Barney suggests they leave the following week to take a job picking grapes. Barney insists this year hasn't been fun anyway without Nancy, but Roo insists that he owes it to Olive to stay. When Olive and Pearl return, Barney begins pouring beers for everyone. He raises a toast to "happy days and glamorous nights." Pearl chokes on her beer and laughs at the thought of it being a "glamorous night." Olive begins to cry, and Barney looks miserable as fireworks go off.
A few days later, Roo is asleep on the couch after work when the others return from the bar with a very drunk Barney. Olive comes in first, wakes Roo, and warns him that Barney brought a friend. When Roo goes to the window, he sees that the "friend" is Johnnie Dowd. Barney appears on the verandah, supported by Johnnie and Pearl. Johnnie greets Roo and asks if they can shake hands. Roo finally accepts, and Barney excitedly tries to kiss Pearl. She retreats upstairs. Johnnie apologizes to Roo, and the men try to arrange all going out together. Roo finally agrees to go to the races the following day, and then leaves to shower. Barney suggests that he, Johnnie, and Roo go to the races as just the three of them, and then decides it'll be better if they take Pearl, Olive, and someone for Johnnie. Barney yells for Pearl and when she appears, asks if her young daughter, Vera, could go with Johnnie. Johnnie seems uncomfortable and Pearl even more so. She refuses, loses her composure, and runs upstairs.
Barney then runs outside and returns minutes later with a bewildered Bubba. Barney makes Bubba agree to come to the races with Johnnie, but Johnnie insists on asking Bubba himself. Bubba tells Johnnie that she does want to go with him. She tries to explain the magic of the house and the layoff season to Johnnie, but Johnnie doesn't see it. She tells him he just won't understand. Johnnie then asks Bubba for her real name (Kathie) before saying goodbye and leaving.
Bubba explains to Roo that she's going with Johnnie to the races the next day. Roo becomes angry when he decides that Barney and Johnnie conspired to get him to go out with them. He yells for Barney and tells Olive to leave. Roo then shoves Barney inside and accuses him of betraying him and trying to bring him down. Barney accuses Roo of being jealous of Johnnie, but Roo takes over and accuses Barney of a number of offenses. When he calls Barney a leech, the two start a fistfight. Olive and Emma run in and separate them. Olive is angry that the men are fighting over “one bad season,” and Barney goads Roo to tell the truth of why he left their job early. Olive reminds everyone of Roo's bad back. When Barney laughs, Roo rushes Barney and forces him to his knees. Roo admits that his back was never hurt, and Johnnie's just a better man—that was why Roo left. Roo then begins to tell the room that women have started laughing at Barney after spending the night with him, and says that Barney isn't even good enough now to “hold” Nancy. Barney tries to throw a vase filled with dolls at Roo, but Roo intercepts and the vase shatters on the floor.
The next morning, Pearl is dressed in black again and prepared to leave. Olive calls Pearl's attention to the newly cleaned living room, free of all decorations (including the dolls Roo had given her). Pearl asks when Barney will return, and tells Olive she doesn't think that Olive knows Barney at all. Pearl continues, saying that nothing in the house is how Olive had described it, and she tells Olive that she'd think the same thing if she'd look at things from adult eyes. Olive implies that it's Pearl's fault things are different this year.
They hear a knock and Olive lets Barney in. Olive excuses herself as Barney comments on how respectable Pearl looks. Pearl insists she was never trying to be Nancy, and Barney admits that Pearl is leaving for the same reasons that Nancy did: she couldn't get what she wanted here. Pearl tries to ask Barney what the third quality of a good woman is, but he says that Pearl doesn't possess the quality anyway. Olive returns to bid Pearl goodbye, and Pearl leaves.
Roo comes downstairs and remarks that the dolls are gone. Olive says that all the decorations were in bad repair and she couldn't bear to put them all back up. She insists she can live without decorations, since she's gone the summer thus far without fun and laughter. Roo tries to explain how hard it was to shake hands with Johnnie, but Olive is still angry about the fight and how this layoff season has been so awful. Emma enters as Olive runs upstairs. She sits and tells Roo that Nancy purposefully got out while things were still good. Roo asks Emma who's to blame for things going sour, and Emma is surprised. She tells Roo that no one is specifically to blame—they're all just getting too old for the layoff season. After arguing, Roo begins to see the sense in this. Emma points out that Barney only started lying when Roo started brushing him off, and she insists that Olive is a childish fool. As she leaves, Bubba and Barney come in from the verandah, arguing about Johnnie (Bubba wants to go meet Johnnie at a bar). Bubba insists that Johnnie honestly asked her out and asked for her real name, and says that this is her chance to recreate what she's been watching for seventeen years. She insists that she won't repeat the others' mistakes, and Roo calls her “Kathie” and gives her his blessing to go with Johnnie.
Olive returns and Roo sends Barney upstairs. Olive says that it's time to “settle up” for the past seventeen summers, which horribly offends Roo. Olive insists that the way Pearl saw things and spoke about things made her feel low and cheap. As Roo comforts her, Olive admits she didn't put the dolls back out because she was angry, and Roo tells Olive she's basically a young girl. He then tells her that he's not going back to cane-cutting again—he’s planning on staying. Olive is confused, and Roo explains that only Barney is leaving—Roo wants to stay and marry Olive. Olive screams "No!" and insists that Roo go back to the cane fields. She yells at him to give her back what he took. As Emma and Barney run in, Olive leaves, sobbing. Emma tells the men to leave and not come back. Barney turns to Roo and says that they can go get jobs anywhere—they should stick together, and forget about Johnnie and the others. In a rage, Roo picks up the seventeenth doll and beats it against the piano. When the doll is shattered and ruined, he lets it drop. Barney encourages Roo to leave. They look at each other and silently acknowledge what they've lost before leaving.