Act I opens with the businessman Lopakhin and maid Dunyasha waiting for the owners of the Ranevskaya estate: the mistress of the house, Lubov Ranevskaya, her brother Gaev, and daughter Anya. They finally arrive, in the middle of the night, with an assortment of others: the governess Charlotta, the manservant Yasha, a friend named Simeon-Pischik, and other servants. Varya, Lubov's adopted daughter, is there too.
Tearful reunions and a general catching-up ensue. Those who stayed home report on the orchard, and those who left report on Paris. The important news items are these: Lopakhin still hasn't proposed to Varya; Lubov lost all her money supporting a scamp; the cherry orchard will definitely be sold to pay their debts; and the elderly servant Fiers is still alive.
Lopakhin has an idea to save their house. He's attached to it because he grew up there, the son of a serf (a peasant working on the land). Lopakhin proposes clearing the land to lease it for summer homes. Neither Lubov nor Gaev can stomach the idea. Just before everyone goes to bed, the student Trofimov enters. He was the tutor to Lubov's deceased young son, and the sight of his face makes her cry for her dead child.
In Act II, we're at a picnic in the cherry orchard. Some weeks have passed. The aristocrats arrive with Lopakhin, who is still hatching plans to save the estate. Lubov knows they need to do something, but to her the idea of summer homes is bourgeois and distasteful. Trofimov enters with Anya and Varya. Pet subjects come up: Varya's engagement; Trofimov's eternal student status; telegrams from Lubov's ne'er-do-well Parisian lover; and the orchard, again and again. A homeless man enters the scene, drunk and singing. He asks for money and Lubov gives him a gold piece, an oversized donation she immediately regrets upon his exit.
Everyone leaves, and finally Trofimov and Anya are left alone. Under his influence, she's come to see the orchard differently. It's no longer the magical center of her childhood, but a symbol of the injustice her family afflicted on others.
Act III is set in August, back at the family estate. Lubov is throwing a party. There are a number of little arguments and discussions. But the main event is the arrival of Lopakhin. He and Gaev have come from the auction of the cherry orchard. Lubov's been on pins and needles waiting to hear what happened. What happened is…Lopakhin bought the estate. The former son of a serf who worked on the estate now owns it. Lubov is crushed, but Anya gently tells her to move on.
Act IV takes place in October, outside the estate. Everyone is moving out, and Lopakhin, no master of sensitivity, offers champagne. Each character says good-bye to the house in his or her way. Anya and Trofimov are excited about the future. Lubov and Gaev are distraught, but trying to keep it together. Lubov is concerned about the elderly servant Fiers: have they taken him to the hospital? Yes, says Anya, he's taken care of. And one last thing: will Lopakhin finally propose to Varya? He won't. Everyone leaves, and after a moment, Fiers enters the stage. He has been forgotten. He lies down and grows quiet.