Content Warning: The source material features discussion of suicide, incest, and euthanasia.
The play opens on a rainy day in Helen Alving’s Norwegian country home. Regina, Helen’s maid, argues with her father Jacob, a carpenter. He has just finished building an orphanage Helen has created in honor of her deceased husband. In preparation for the orphanage’s opening, the two await the arrival of Pastor Manders. Jacob attempts to convince Regina to return home with him before the pastor’s arrival and establish a hostel for sailors using the money he made from building the orphanage. The dialogue hints at the possibility that Regina is not Jacob’s biological daughter, but the product of her mother’s affair with a gentleman. Regina refuses Jacob’s offer because she hopes to marry someone of higher class. She urges Jacob to leave.
Pastor Manders arrives. He urges Regina to move in with her father and look after him. She refuses and exits the stage to alert Helen of the pastor’s arrival. Jacob also leaves the stage.
Helen enters. She updates the pastor on her son Oswald’s return home after a two-year absence. The pastor comments on the books he notices on Helen’s coffee table and questions Helen’s choice to read secular texts, warning Helen to be cautious about works like these since she is opening an orphanage.