Setting: a comfortable home. As the curtain opens, Shmarye, a man in his sixties, is finishing his prayers while David, his stepson from his third marriage, lies on a bench. An unnamed man stops by on his way to evening services for the holiday of Shavuot; Shmarye says he will join them soon. When Shmarye’s twenty-two-year-old wife, Khane-Royze enters, he teases her about having been engaged to David before she married him, and makes insinuations about other young men’s interest in her:
Khane-Dvoyre: But what did you want from me?
Shmarye: From you?
Khane-Dvoyre: You called me.
Shmarye: And when I call you, you come, huh? And when a young man calls you?
Khane-Dvoyre (Leaving.): The water’s getting cold.
Shmarye: So is my heart.
When Shmarye says he’s leaving for synagogue, Khane-Dvoyre pleads with him to stay in a way that makes him suspicious. Her excuse is that it’s raining, prompting him to reply, “I’m not made of sugar and I don’t taste like sugar!” He tells her that in the morning, she’ll go to synagogue dressed nicely, not like when she embarrassed him by showing up in synagogue in an old dress, “turning Passover into the Ninth of Av.” He also gives her jewelry, which David remarks belonged to Shmarye’s first wife, and earrings, which David says are from the second, and a watch and chain, which Khane-Dvoyre says are from the third. As Shmarye leaves, he tells her, “If you move the shutters, I’ll smack you.”
Khane-Dvoyre is anxious about being left alone with David. We learn that they had been a couple. David left town for several years and wrote to her regularly, but people who didn’t want them to be together intercepted the mail, and after awhile, Khane-Dvoyre became convinced that he forgot about her. She also had few options, being poor. He reminds her of good times in their past, which pains her, because she is now another man’s wife, and doesn’t want to sin. She also recalls how good life was with David, but as a thunderstorm grows in intensity outside, she says now she’s a fly caught in Shmarye’s web, and describes the “Hell” that is their marriage. A shutter is torn off its hinges, and we can see flames nearby. Khane-Dvoyre calls for David to save her, and he approaches her, shouting, “It’s burning nearby.” Then Shmarye suddenly appears and gets between them, exclaiming, “Here, it’s burning here! Hell is burning!”