On a frosty morning in May, the aristocratic Madame Ranevsky, her daughter Anya, and their servants Yasha and Charlotte return to their family’s ancestral estate in the Russian countryside from Paris. A coterie of friends, family members, and neighbors anxiously await their arrival, among them Ranevsky’s brother Gayef, her eldest daughter Barbara, and her neighbors Lopakhin and Pishtchik. Ranevsky is thrilled to be home after five years abroad, but is greeted by the sad news that unless she finds a way to pay off the interest on the estate by the end of August, the property—and the expansive cherry orchard that covers much of it—will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Lopakhin urges Ranevsky to chop down the cherry orchard, divide the land up into parcels, and rent them out acre by acre to upwardly mobile members of the emerging middle class, or “villa residents,” but Ranevsky will hear nothing of this plan. Instead, she lends out money she does not have to Pishtchik and tumbles back into memories of her painful exit five years ago, spurred by the death of her youngest child, Grisha who drowned at only seven years old.
As the house comes back to life, the servants Dunyasha and Ephikhodof navigate an awkward romance; elderly butler Firs, who has taken to mumbling incoherently to himself, rejoices in his mistress’s return; Gayef schemes of ways to secure money through borrowing and back channels; Barbara wonders whether she will ever get a proposal from Lopakhin, who has been rumored to be considering asking her hand in marriage for several months now; and the shabby scholar Trophimof, who once served as tutor to the deceased Grisha, longs quietly for the beautiful young Anya.
In the second act, the family’s servants enjoy a day out in the open fields behind the house. Despite the beautiful weather and the appearance of a friendly gathering, Charlotte, Yasha, Dunyasha, and Ephikhodof all harbor their own pain and misery which they can only air to one another—and even then, their need for connection and exorcism of their private demons all seem to fall on deaf ears. Dunyasha avoids the suicidal Ephikhodof, having fallen for the cruel, affected Yasha instead; Charlotte, the stateless child of circus performers laments that she is all alone in the world.
Ranevsky, Gayef, and Lopakhin, having come from a luxurious (and unaffordable) lunch in town, return to the estate and linger in the fields a while. Lopakhin warns Ranevsky that rumors of potential buyers are swirling and urges her to reconsider his idea about chopping down the cherry orchard, but she will not hear his “vulgar” proposal. Trophimof, Anya, and Barbara join the gathering in the field; Trophimof lectures everyone on the intellectual and social problems facing modern-day Russia, such as the lazy, snobbish “intelligentsia” and the lack of “honest and decent” hardworking individuals. When a tramp comes along and begs money off of Ranevsky, she hands him a valuable gold coin, as she does not have any smaller change; Barbara, angry that her mother is giving away money to bums when there is barely enough food back up at the house, angrily heads home. Everyone but Anya and Trophimof follows her.
Anya confesses to Trophimof that while she once loved the cherry orchard dearly, she now feels nothing when she looks at it; Trophimof suggests that Anya has realized the pain and suffering of generations of unpaid laborers once tasked with maintaining the orchards, and is sympathetic to the plight of the working class. He entreats Anya to throw her house keys down the well, and Anya excitedly agrees that she should. Trophimof predicts that despite the struggles he has faced in his life, happiness is fast approaching. Barbara calls for Anya to come up to the house, but instead, she scampers away to the river with Trophimof.
In act three, it is August, and Ranevsky has arranged for a lavish dinner party, complete with a Jewish band of musicians and lots of dancing. She has orchestrated the party to distract from her anxiety—in town, far away, the auction for the cherry orchard is taking place, and Gayef and Lopakhin have not yet returned with news of whether the property was sold or saved. Over the course of the dinner party, the servants—notably Dunyasha and Ephikhodof—act like guests themselves, incurring the ire of Barbara, who wants for them to remember their place. Ranevsky confides in Trophimof the details of her miserable relationship with her ex-lover, who writes to her nearly every day and is like a heavy but beautiful stone around her neck. Trophimof states that he is “above love,” but Ranevsky mocks him, calling him a “freak” for denying his feelings for Anya.
Eventually, Gayef enters the drawing-room, crying. Ranevsky asks him what happened at the auction, but he refuses to answer, and heads upstairs to change. Moments later, a gleeful Lopakhin comes into the room; when Ranevsky asks him whether the cherry orchard was sold, he replies that it was, and when she asks him who bought it, he answers that he himself was the highest bidder. Lopakhin brags about how far he—the son of lowly peasants—has come in the world and looks forward to building a “new life” for the middle classes on the land where the orchard now stands. Ranevsky begins weeping; Anya kneels before her and comforts her, promising that they will soon plant a new orchard somewhere even lovelier.
In the fourth and final act, the house is bare and packed up; a large pile of luggage sits in the corner of the nursery. Ranevsky and her family are hurriedly and tearfully preparing to leave—they are taking a train out of town in less than an hour. As everyone hurries around, packing at the last minute, Lopakhin attempts to serve champagne to “celebrate” his ownership of the estate. Firs, meanwhile, has fallen ill, and has been sent to the hospital for treatment, according to Yasha. As Ranevsky, Gayef, Anya, and Barbara bid goodbye to their home, the sound of axes chopping down the cherry trees rumble in the distance. Anya begs Lopakhin to wait until they have left, at least, before he and his men begin dismantling their family’s pride and joy.
Ranevsky, in a moment alone with Lopakhin, begs him to at last propose to Barbara; he consents. Ranevsky calls Barbara into the room and then leaves so that the two can be alone. They awkwardly discuss the weather until Lopakhin is called outside by one of his workers; Lopakhin does not propose to Barbara, and she collapses near the luggage in tears. Ranevsky helps Barbara collect herself, and sunnily states that it’s time for the entire family to start out on a new journey. As Anya and Trophimof bid a happy goodbye to the old house, Ranevsky and Gayef linger inside a moment longer, bidding their youth and happiness goodbye before locking up and leaving. After everyone has gone, an ill-looking Firs emerges from the next room; he has been left behind and “forgotten.” He sits on the sofa and laments his wasted life; he lies down and appears to die as the sounds of the axes chopping down the nearby cherry trees start up again.