The spirit of Rosaleen appears onstage holding a child in her arms. She sings a lullaby to the child that ponders the inevitabilities of life and death.
A boisterous wedding scene erupts onstage. A raucous chorus sings of their expectation for love and joy at the wedding of their dear friends, Rosaleen and Dalton. After the chorus ends, Rosaleen's parents sing a duet explaining that the proper upbringing of a daughter is never easy, no matter what the merits of a young girl. Rosaleen makes a playful comment that shocks her parents, but delights her new husband, Dalton, who sings an affectionate song of love for his new bride. Meanwhile, an old woman complains aside to Cale, Dalton's brother, of the shame of having a son who has married below his station. Cale recognizes her as Widow Crawford, his estranged Aunt, and admits that despite the fact that he has been unfairly excluded from his uncle's inheritance, he has reconciled with his long-lost brother. As Cale tries to reassure her of the merits of Rosaleen, Widow Crawford warns Cale that, as Dalton's adoptive mother, she has observed that Dalton has never been quite right in the mind after he experienced the trauma of finding his mother's body after she committed suicide over a lost lover. Cale angrily denies these allegations about his brother and as he goes to speak to Dalton, is uncomfortably forced to dance with Alina, Rosaleen's lady maid. Alina tries to confess her love to Cale, who begs her to be silent on the subject, since she must know that his heart already belongs with another: his brother's new bride. After the dance, Rosaleen thanks Cale for reconciling with Dalton. Widow Crawford and Dalton observe Cale and Rosaleen from across the wedding party, and Widow Crawford disturbs Dalton with the suggestion that Cale and Rosaleen share an inappropriate sexual chemistry. Rosaleen laughs at Dalton's jealousy, which only heightens his distress. The act closes with another boisterous dance which, in an attempt to tease Dalton, Rosaleen dances with Cale.
A whirlwind sequence shows Rosaleen's three pregnancies and the subsequent deaths of three newborns. Four years later, Rosaleen sits with her lady's maid, Alina, and confesses that she is again with child. She fears that, like her three previous children, this child will be stillborn. Alina attempts to comfort her with a song about her past, and then pledges herself to Rosaleen's care. Rosaleen then sings a song fantasizing about the days of being an admired young girl, not a scorned wife. Dalton enters and forces Rosaleen into admitting that she is many months pregnant, then torments her with the blame of the three stillbirths. When Rosaleen appeals to his mercy, Dalton becomes unexpectedly angry and strikes her. He storms from the room, where he encounters Cale, who has come to call upon Rosaleen. Dalton accuses Cale of sleeping with Rosaleen, and claims that he poisons his wife's wine so that these “bastard” children are too deformed to live more than a few hours after birth.
A flurry activity occurs in the Crawford household as the servants debate among each other the seriousness of Dalton's comment, and whether or not the death of Rosaleen's children is in fact planned murder or just an unexplained series of unfortunate losses. Isabella, one of Rosaleen's maid girls, attempts to distract Rosaleen from her troubled thoughts by singing a song about the Greek murderess Clytemnestra. Rosaleen has begun to unravel and in a moment of cloudiness, believes Isabella to be her eldest daughter. Alina recognizes the seriousness of the situation, and when Cale bursts forth into the room with a plea for Rosaleen to flee with him, she begs Rosaleen to escape Dalton, even if only temporarily. Rosaleen insists that she must uphold her marriage vow and she will not leave. Alina pulls Cale aside and begs him to take her away instead, but Cale becomes angry and insists that Alina help him escape with Rosaleen. Alina agrees that he should return at midnight to carry out this plan and watches him go, resigned.
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