For sixteen years, Roo, Barney, Olive and Nancy have been spending each summer together in the same house when Roo and Barney come into the city to spend the money they make working the rest of the year as itinerant cane cutters. For all of them, Olive especially, it's an annual highlight that makes the rest of the year worthwhile.
This year, things are different. Nancy is absent; she got married during the year, and not to Barney. Olive has invited another friend, Pearl, to make up the numbers, but she's not sure she's going to fit in. When Roo and Barney arrive, they reveal that they've had a bad season; Roo has no money saved up, and their friendship is under stress because they parted ways on how to handle a situation in their cutting crew. Tensions mount, and when the summer is over nothing will ever be the same again.
This play contains examples of:
- Downer Ending: Following a day where every attempt to patch things up just makes matters worse, Pearl declares she's had enough and leaves, prompting Barney to decide to cut his holiday short and go off fruit-picking until the cane-cutting season begins again. He asks Roo to join him, but Roo says he's staying put, and that he won't be back for the cane-cutting either, because he's decided to get a steady job in the city and ask Olive to marry him. Olive, clinging to the hope that it might still be possible to recreate the magical summers of years past, reacts badly to Barney's decision — and worse to Roo's, since accepting his proposal for a new life together would mean accepting that the old life is over. Following her violent rejection, Roo leaves the house, never to return.
- The Ghost: Nancy never appears, and her absence overshadows the events to the point that she's effectively a Posthumous Character, except that instead of dying she got married.
- Here We Go Again!: Near the end of the play, just around the time Roo and Olive's relationship is collapsing in an acrimonious heap and Roo is beginning to suspect it was doomed to end that way all along, their young friend Kathie, oblivious to the troubled waters their relationship is in, heads out on a date with a cane-cutter her age, hoping it will be the start of a relationship like theirs.
- Honorary Uncle: Roo and Barney have been spending their summers at the same boarding house for nearly two decades. Bubba, the young woman who lives in the house next door, has grown up with them as a regular on-and-off part of her life, and considers them honorary uncles.
- Only Known by Their Nickname:
- Roo and Barney. Their real names are given once, when Olive is telling Pearl about them at the beginning, and then never mentioned again.
- Bubba, who everyone's known since she was a little girl; it's a significant moment in her personal arc when Johnnie Dowd, on being introduced to her, asks what her actual name is (and it's followed by a scene where Johnnie refers to her by that name and Barney is like "who?" before realizing he means Bubba).
- Priceless Ming Vase: The doll of the title is made of fragile porcelain and has a high sentimental value, so of course it doesn't make it to the end of the play in one piece. Played for drama, not laughs.
- Selective Obliviousness
- Roo fires one of his cutters because he's getting too old and is slowing down. He then finds himself in competition with the much younger replacement and quits in a huff. It's only towards the end of the play that he realises that he's the same age as the man he fired.
- Olive views her partying with Roo as being a lot more glamorous than it is, and fails to realise it's not going to last forever.
- Symbolically Broken Object: The doll of the title, which Roo gives Olive at the beginning to mark their seventeenth summer together. At the end of the play, when Roo realises their relationship is broken, he smashes the doll in an emotional outburst.
- They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: A variation in the scene set on the first morning. Every time a character comes down to the living room, Olive's mother comes out of the kitchen to let them know that there's a hot breakfast waiting to be served, only for them to get distracted by something that's happening in the living room. At the end of the scene, to her loudly-expressed annoyance, everybody heads out without having gone near the breakfast.