Act I. Winter. A damp basement room in the dwelling of Shimen and Dvoyre, a 50 year-old cobbler and his wife. Shimen and his apprentice Jonah sit in the part of the room that serves as their workshop, repairing shoes. Miriam, an 18-year-old boarder, sits near them knitting socks on a machine, and sings a song about the loneliness of a blind orphan. Dvoyre asks Miriam whether she thinks there are still good people in the world. Miriam is sure there are; Yoyne, who has been in the army and lived in the big city, is equally certain that there aren’t. They talk about how living in the basement saps people of their health and youth. Miriam daydreams about being wealthy and giving money to help the poor, and Yoyne laughs at her. Shimen and Dvoyre’s 23-year-old daughter Leah enters, along with Moyshe, an elderly wood carrier who boards with them. Then Zilberman, the wealthy 20-year-old son of their landlord, enters, ostensibly to pick up the snowshoe he brought in for repair. He asks about Miriam, who he says he thought was Shimen and Dvoyre’s daughter. He goes. Miriam is initially rapturous, but after Leah leads a chorus of voices in warning Miriam about people like Zilberman, Miriam becomes quiet. Leah asks her to dance, Miriam joylessly complies.
Act II. The basement, in summer. Zilberman talks to Yoyne and Miriam while they fix shoes and mend clothes, and expresses his admiration for workers. When Zilberman leaves for a short time, Jonah again cautions Miriam about him. An irritated Miriam denies that there’s anything going on between them. Zilberman returns and sends Jonah out to get beer. Left alone, he and Miriam talk about time they’ve spent together. To Miriam’s questions as to whether he loves her and will continue to, Zilberman repeatedly says yes. He leaves shortly after the others return, and Jonah goes back to teasing Miriam about her relationship with Jonah. Finally Miriam has had enough, and declares, “I want to escape from this dark basement of yours! … I want to live, and you’re not letting me … you’re strangers, and I don’t need your permission!” She exits.
Act III. The same room, just before the winter holiday of Purim. Yoyne and his wife Leah now have a baby. Dvoyre tells the others she ran into Miriam, who is pregnant, with the baby due soon. Though Shimen has harsh words to say about her, the others are more sympathetic, and talk about how Zilberman abandoned her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. Shouting is then heard outside, and Miriam herself shows up at the door, saying that Zilberman’s family threw her down the stairs to their home when she tried to see him. Miriam starts to go into labor, and is brought to Yoyne and Leah’s room, behind a curtain. A midwife is called, and while Miriam screams in pain, the midwife wryly responds, “You won’t die, you won’t die. Decent women will die in childbirth before their time because of you, but you … you won’t die.” Miriam’s cries cut her off as the curtain falls.
Act IV. An attic room on the edge of town. Miriam talks, eats, and drinks with two other women, Natalke and Grunye. The room is in a brothel, and customers occasionally knock on the door, but the women have decided not to work today. Instead, they swap stories about what led them to their current situations. Miriam recalls how after she was thrown down the stairs, Yoyne beat Zilberman with an iron rod, and was arrested. She felt that she had to leave the basement, and set out on her own, where a man accosted her, gave her some money and food, and brought her to the madam she works for. Grunye expresses her rage “at the whole world,” kisses Miriam and buries her face in her breast, and as Miriam again sings the song of the lonely orphan, the curtain falls.