Hartford, 1957. On a crisp October afternoon, housewife Cathy Whitaker revels in her favorite season (“Autumn in Connecticut”) as eleven-year-old David plays on his scooter; Janice, his little sister, pleads for new ballet slippers; and Sybil, the maid, puts away groceries. Cathy’s friend Eleanor Fine drops by to confirm catering plans for the annual company party for Magnatech, where their husbands are executives. Later that evening, as Cathy dresses for a neighbor’s cocktail party, Janice worries she will never be as pretty as her mother is (“Once Upon a Time”). A call from the police informs Cathy that her husband, Frank, has been arrested for loitering. After bailing him out, Cathy drives home from the station as Frank fumes (“If It Hadn’t Been”). Back home, Cathy calls Eleanor and invents a pretense for having missed Mona Lauder’s cocktail party, then invites Frank upstairs to bed. He declines. Putting the incident out of her mind, Cathy tears up the police report and goes upstairs alone.
The next morning Frank is his dapper self again, reading the paper as the kids are served breakfast by Sybil (“Table Talk”). As Frank heads for the office, Sybil lets in Mrs. Leacock and a photographer, who have come to profile Cathy for the local newspaper (“Mrs. Magnatech”). The interview comes to a halt when Cathy notices a stranger in her back yard, a black man. Cathy mistakenly accuses him of trespassing only to learn that he is Raymond Deagan, her regular gardener’s son, obliged to take over his father’s business since his passing. Cathy offers Raymond her condolences. Mrs. Leacock writes it all down for her column. At the Magnatech offices downtown, Eleanor’s husband, Stan, flirts with Frank’s secretary, Connie, as Frank phones home to say he’ll be working late – it’s portfolio season (“Office Talk”). But instead, Frank goes for a walk through the city, pausing to smoke as he exchanges glances with a stranger (“Evening Stroll”). A few days later, Mrs. Leacock’s article in The Weekly Gazette reports that Cathy Whitaker is “kind to Negroes.” This sends Eleanor and friends Doreen and Nancy into peals of laughter as they enjoy afternoon cocktails around Cathy’s kitchen table. Comparing their sex lives (“Marital Bliss”), the ladies insist that Cathy give details about hers.
When the girls leave, Cathy feels obscurely troubled as she observes the garden at dusk. Her reverie is broken by Raymond, who has come to return a silk scarf he found entangled in the branches. Cathy accepts it gratefully but then, not knowing how to speak to each other, they mull the differences between the varieties of plants (“Sun and Shade”). Frank phones at dinnertime: He’ll be late yet again (“Table Talk II”). Cathy calms the distraught children and heads downtown to surprise him with a home-cooked meal (“Autumn in Connecticut [Reprise]”).
At his office she discovers him in flagrante delicto with an anonymous man. She bolts. Back home, Frank stammers a confession (“Secrets”). Cathy presses him to see a doctor, and he agrees, confident he can cure this “illness” that’s plagued him since his days in the armed forces (“If It Hadn’t Been [Reprise]”).
At the Hartford Center for the Arts, gallery visitors gaze blankly at abstract prints by twentieth-century artists (“Interesting”). Eleanor tells Cathy that their catty neighbor Mona Lauder has already arrived and brought her uncle, Morris Farnsworth, a condescending art dealer from New York City whose effeminacy irks Eleanor. Cathy notices Raymond and his little girl, Sarah, the only black people there. Sending Sarah outside to play, Raymond and Cathy admire an abstract lithograph (“Miró”). Their interaction attracts the titillated attention of everyone in the gallery.
Cathy’s guests at the Magnatech party celebrate their hostess’s unerring style (“Once a Year”), while Frank jokes drunkenly at Cathy’s expense. When the guests are gone, Cathy wonders why things have to turn so ugly (“Secrets [Reprise]”). Frank tries, and fails, to make love to Cathy, and when she encourages him, he pushes her away and accidentally strikes her hard in the face with his cufflink. Frank runs to find ice as Cathy breaks down, climbing the stairs to her bedroom, where she tries to cover the bruise by rearranging her hair. Her new hairstyle almost fools Eleanor the next morning, but she spies the bruise and grows suspicious (“Cathy, I’m Your Friend”).
In the garden, Raymond notices Cathy weeping. He suggests a change of scene, a ride in the suburbs with him as he delivers some shrubs. Walking on a wooded trail with Raymond among the changing foliage, Cathy admits to strain in her marriage. She wonders why she finds it so natural to confide in Raymond. Raymond suggests that sometimes it’s easier to confide in an outsider, which prompts Cathy to ask him what it felt like to be the only black man at the art exhibition (“The Only One”). He demonstrates how it feels by taking Cathy to Ernie’s Bar and Grill, where Cathy is the only white person in the place. Acknowledging their mutual feelings, Raymond and Cathy slow-dance amidst several black couples. The unlikely pair catches the eye of Mona, who is having her car repaired across the street. Scandalized, she makes a phone call to spread the word.
Eleanor calls to say that gossip about Cathy is all over town (“Phone Talk”). Then Frank confronts her about the rumors he’s heard (“If It Hadn’t Been [Reprise]”). He’s been sent home early from work on an “unpaid vacation.” Though it’s due to his declining job performance, he blames Cathy and her association with Raymond. Intimidated, Cathy fibs, telling Frank that Raymond has already been dismissed. She arranges to meet Raymond in town at Keller’s drugstore and tells him in person they cannot afford to see each other again.
On Christmas morning, as David and Janice open presents (“Table Talk II”), Cathy gives Frank a box of travel brochures. He chooses a swanky Miami Beach resort. As a Latin singer croons in the Starlight Room, Cathy feels desired again in Frank’s arms, even as he is glancing over her shoulder at Chase Decker, a handsome preppie who is dancing nearby with his sister (“Wandering Eyes”). Next morning at the hotel poolside, Cathy is feeling blissful that romance has returned to her marriage, unaware that Frank is being seduced by the determined young man from the nightclub. Back home in Hartford, Cathy learns that a little black girl was hit in the head by a rock thrown by one of David’s school friends. Cathy’s renewed marital bliss is cut short when Frank breaks down one night in front of the frightened children.
Cathy sends them upstairs as Frank confesses (“Secrets [Reprise]”). He has fallen in love with a man (“I Never Knew”). Speaking honestly of his feelings, he unintentionally crushes Cathy’s. With the marriage over, Cathy seeks sympathy from Eleanor, but finds her friend’s support has limits (“Cathy, I’m Your Friend [Reprise]”).
Back home, Sybil reveals that the little girl struck by a rock was Raymond’s daughter, Sarah. Cathy hurries to Raymond’s house to ask after Sarah, and also to see if there is a glimmer of hope for her and Raymond to be together now that she is to be single again. It’s too late. Raymond, concerned for his daughter’s safety, has sold the house and business and is moving to Baltimore come the first of April. Late that night, Frank calls Cathy to confirm a meeting with their divorce lawyer (“Tuesdays, Thursdays”).
April 1st finds David practicing catching a baseball and squabbling with his sister (“Table Talk IV”). Cathy puts on her coat and scarf, the one Raymond found for her, and excuses herself to run an errand. At the Hartford train station, Raymond finds a seat on the train for Sarah, then checks the luggage with the porter. As he looks up, Cathy is across the platform. He wishes her a proud and splendid life (“A Picture in Your Mind”). The train departs and Cathy walks home feeling the sting of loss. And yet she somehow senses she will emerge from her lifelong cocoon, changed (“Heaven Knows/Act II Finale”). Back at home, she pauses to watch spring blossoms float down from the trees. Janice and David run to her. With a gentle embrace, Cathy puts her scarf around Janice, sends them off to play and stands looking out at the day.