A man is freed from jail after 20 years in early 1930, but as he finally emerges, he realizes that this world isn't as he dreamed it would be.
Act 1, Scene 1:
January 15, 1930 (The Great Depression)
New York, New York
Footsteps are heard echoing across the theater. The unknown person takes a few steps before stopping completely. The curtain slowly rises as the stage fills with blinding white light, shining into the eyes of the audience. The stage is unable to be seen through the light for a few seconds, then it slowly fades to a chilling gray.
Once the stage comes into view, the audience is able to see a ragged man behind the steel bars of a jail. He is slumped against the wall of the cell, his eyes closed. The man looks extremely exhausted and even internally broken; his posture is terrible and his hair unkempt. There are 7,300 white chalk-mark tallies on the wall, unevenly drawn and spaced.
Jonathan King is the man in the cell. He's been there for 20 years (or, rather, 7,300 days) under a false accusation and sentence. Before being put in jail in 1910, he was a happy yet lonely man of 23. He was a postman, a simple and fulfilling existence--he enjoyed the social counterpart of the job and had a love interest who he would talk to daily. But he grew tired of the few-minute encounters and gave up, becoming depressed and bitter.
Jonathan, mumbling to himself as the light dims: Grass rather than stone. Sky rather than steel. Flowers rather than...he trails off.
The footsteps heard earlier are presumably from a young man (Young Jonathan) who now walks onstage from the left (stage left). As he enters, the stage lights seem to all focus on him, as if he's the only thing there. He has a mailbag and is wearing 1910-era clothing, his hair neatly combed. There is a happy eagerness in his step as he crosses the stage, paying no attention to the cell, as if it weren't there.
The young man digs through his mailbag as he walks, pulling a few letters out. Upon reading one, he stops short and smiles a bit.
Young Jonathan: Miss Josephine Willard. Pause. Mrs. Josephine King. He laughs, then says in a somewhat mockingly proper tone: Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan King.
He walks offstage, clutching the letter tightly, his footsteps still echoing. As he leaves, Jonathan's eyes snap open and he breathes in quickly, as if he's been holding his breath. He looks around, almost alarmed, then seems to take notice of where he is and relaxes.
A guard comes in from the right (stage right). He fidgets with his keys, then heads to the cell.
Guard, as he unlocks the door: C'mon, get up.
Jonathan, slurred: Just--just hold on...
He stands rather slowly, stretching out his sore limbs. After he's finished, he looks at the guard questioningly.
Jonathan, still not completely responsive: What do you want?
Guard: Your time's up, John. Pause. Come on, you're done.
Jonathan freezes in the middle of another large stretch. His eyes widen completely; he raises his eyebrows and holds his breath. He stays that way for a few seconds before running desperately back into the cell and looking at all his tallies.
Jonathan, after finishing: Twenty years...
There is a long pause, then he looks at his hands, his arms, trying to understand. Suddenly, he turns to the guard.
Jonathan: Twenty years?
The guard simply nods. In response, Jonathan starts to smile tremendously.
Guard: You ready, then?
Jonathan, surprised but still surprisingly happy: Yes! Yes, let's go!
The guard sighs, rubbing his temples now. Then he leads the shaken Jonathan offstage, shaking his head pitifully.
As they go, Jonathan pauses and looks towards the area Young Jonathan was. When he sees nothing, he nods slightly, following the guard out.