PART ONE: BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY. The play begins on a deserted Nantucket beach in 1875 where the young Joshua Hickman awaits the return of his wife, Lydie, who has been off-island on a nursing assignment. She is furious that he has let her cherished gardenia plant wither and die in her absence while he is disheartened that the philosophical magnum opus on which he has labored for years has been rejected for publication. Their discord reflects on the failure of the utopian community they had sought to establish in the house left to Lydie by her whaling captain father, the only other remaining member being Amos Mason, a young man educated by Joshua who now talks of leaving to enroll at Harvard. When another former communard, Dan Grady, returns unexpectedly with an enormous amount of money that can make their dreams come true, the action quickens, as the old passion between Lydie and Dan is revived, and the jealous Joshua kills his rival. In the second act, Joshua, now in prison for murdering Dan, has written a memoir of what they tried to achieve. Amos, now a politically ambitious lawyer, feels his future will be put in danger by publication of Joshua's revelations. He offers Joshua freedom if Joshua will destroy his book.PART TWO: THE SACREDNESS OF THE NEXT TASK. PART TWO takes place in 1895. The hopes of this noble experiment had been destroyed by adultery, murder and suicide, and now those haunted by the tragedy gather to seek its expiation: the patriarch, Joshua Hickman, now pardoned for killing his wife's lover; his young daughter, Lydie, the namesake of her long-dead mother, a suicide; his oldest daughter, Gussie, the secretary-mistress of a U.S. Senator; and Jeremiah Grady, the long-lost son of the murdered lover. Moving from comedy to melodrama to tragic destiny as it untangles the twisted strands of their lives, the play illuminates both the undying optimism that underlies the American ethos and, through the metaphor of syphilis, the endemic corruption that, so often, can reach beyond its own time to subvert the cherished hopes of the future.
"Guare has managed to capture a rhythm of American life, the scale of culture's compromise, and the glorious, limping, enduring mess of our idealism." —Village Voice.