Barbara lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her teenaged daughter, Jean. She is in the process of separating from her unfaithful husband, Bill, a university professor who is having an affair with one of his students. Barbara once had ambitions of being a writer, ambitions her father thought she had the talent to realize. But instead she became a faculty wife, like her mother.
Violet is a sharp-tongued woman who has raised three daughters, Barbara, Ivy, and Karen. A lifelong smoker, at the start of the play she is suffering from mouth cancer and has become addicted to prescription drugs, not for the first time. She prides herself on telling the often unkind truth, but she never talked to her husband about his love affair or the child he fathered, Little Charles.
Beverly Weston is an alcoholic who takes his own life at the start of the play, leaving his wife, three grown daughters, and extended family to deal with the consequences. Beverly grew up poor and was homeless for a time. He becomes a successful poet and professor, although he never liked teaching and eventually his talent for writing dries up.
Ivy is the daughter who dutifully remains unmarried and at home while her sisters, Barbara and Karen, go on to build new lives far away. Taking care of the aging Beverly and Violet has fallen to Ivy, and she is bitter about it. She hopes to find happiness in New York with Little Charles, who turns out to be her half-brother.
Karen has a new relationship every year, and she is unreasonably optimistic about her prospects with her latest fiancé, the sleazy, unworthy Steve, who has already been married three times. She is self-absorbed, prattling about her honeymoon while the family gathers to bury her father, Beverly.
Mattie Fae seems devoted to her sister, Violet, but she once had an affair with Violet's husband, Beverly. Her only son, Little Charles, is Beverly's child. Some combination of anger or sorrow over the affair seems to have left her permanently disappointed in her son, Little Charles, whom she treats with scorn.
Bumbling and inept, Little Charles has never learned to drive and can't hold down a job for long. His nickname shows the low regard in which most of the family holds him, as if he were a permanent child. Little Charles's lack of confidence seems to come from the scorn with which his mother, Mattie Fae, treats him.