The businessman Lopakhin and young maid Dunyasha are in the nursery at Lubov Ranevskaya's house. They were waiting anxiously for Lubov to arrive from the train, but Lopakhin has fallen asleep.
When he wakes up, he reminisces about Lubov showing him kindness as a little boy, though he was just a peasant. He's a rich man now.
The clerk Epikhodov enters and gives a weather report: frost, though the cherry trees are in bloom. When he leaves, Dunyasha confesses to Lopakhin that the clerk has proposed to her. But he's accident-prone and has squeaky boots, so she's not sure she's into it.
Two carriages drive up to the house. The old servant Fiers walks across the stage to meet the mistress of the house, Lubov. He mumbles to himself.
Everyone enters! Lubov, her daughters Anya and Varya, her brother Gaev, the magician Charlotta, Simeon-Pischik, and a couple of servants.
Lubov recognizes the nursery where she grew up, and weeps.
When Anya and Dunyasha are left alone, Dunyasha confides that Epikhodov has proposed. Anya is indifferent and exhausted.
Varya enters with her keys. She's been left behind to take care of the house. Anya gives an account of living in Paris with Charlotta and Lubov. It was cold; her French was horrible; her mother is penniless.
Anya asks Varya a question that will be repeated throughout the play: has Lopakhin proposed? No, says Varya, and she doubts he will. She wishes people would stop pushing it.
The servant Yasha enters. He sexually harasses Dunyasha and she breaks a saucer.
Anya and Varya talk about Trofimov. He was their little brother Grisha's tutor before his death – right after Lubov's husband's death.
Fiers scolds Dunyasha for not having the coffee ready, then weeps with happiness that the mistress is back home. (Comedy and sentimentality are often butted up right next to each other in Chekhov.)
The older generation reenters: Lubov with her brother Gaev. They are reminiscing, and as Lopakhin tries to contribute, Gaev embarrasses him.
A little more small talk and Lopakhin comes out with it: the cherry orchard is going to be sold if they don't do something about it. He has a plan. They just need to divide the land into building lots for summer homes, rent them out, and make enough money to pay their debts.
Ranevskaya and Gaev look at him blankly. They can't imagine selling this land where they grew up.
Varya enters with two telegrams for Ranevskaya. They are from Paris. She rips them up without reading them.
Totally ignoring Lopakhin's proposal for the cherry orchard, Gaev makes an ode to the bookcase.
Lopakhin finally leaves. Pischik asks Lubov to loan him money, and Varya protests they haven't got it. More teasing about Varya marrying Lopakhin ensues.
They're all about to go to bed. The sun is coming up outside, and Gaev and Lubov notice that the orchard is all white. Lubov imagines she sees her mother walking towards her.
Trofimov enters. He was Grisha's tutor. At first Lubov doesn't recognize him; then she bursts into tears, thinking of her dead son. She's depressed at how old Trofimov looks.
Before going to bed, Lubov agrees to loan Pischik money.
Yasha won't see his mother, who's been waiting in the kitchen since yesterday. She's a peasant, and he's become almost a gentleman.
Gaev proposes a few options for saving the orchard: Anya's marriage to a rich man, the intervention of a wealthy aunt, an inheritance. Varya wishes for the help of God.
Part of the problem, says Gaev, is that Lubov is a little morally loose. Anya overhears this and scolds Gaev for slandering her mother.
Both Anya and Varya agree Gaev should keep his trap shut more often. But he's in a state: he's figured out three courses of action to save the orchard. He will arrange a loan from somebody at the District Court; Lubov will sweet-talk Lopakhin; and Anya will try the rich aunt. Something's got to work out.
All this planning soothes Anya. She's sure it will be OK.
Fiers still regards Gaev as a child. He reprimands him for staying up late. Before Gaev goes to bed, he makes one last speech about treating peasants well – to the chagrin of Anya and Varya.
Varya tells Anya that some vagrants started sleeping in the servant's quarters, relying on her to feed them. But Anya has fallen asleep.
As Varya takes Anya to bed, Trofimov sees her for the first time in several years. He is moved.