Act I, which Wilder calls "Daily Life," is a re-creation of the normal daily activities found in a small New Hampshire town. The act opens with the appearance of the Stage Manager, who speaks directly to the audience. He tells where all of the main buildings of the town are located and gives pertinent facts about Grover's Corners. Then he introduces us to the Webbs and the Gibbses, who are two of the town's main families.
After the introduction by the Stage Manager, the milkman and paper boy arrive and signal the official opening of the action of the play. Then the representative families begin to assemble for breakfast. First, the mother in each family tries to get her children up, dressed, fed, and off to school. After the children leave, the two mothers (Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs) meet for a chat. The Stage Manager returns and states more facts about the town. By this time, the day has passed by. Emily Webb and George Gibbs come home from school. George is struggling with schoolwork; Emily is the best student in her class. The two young people arrange a way so that Emily can assist George.
The Stage Manager returns and tells more about the town. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs attend weekly choir rehearsal. Afterward, they discuss the organist's drinking. That night, Mrs. Gibbs tells her husband that the organist's drinking problem is the worst she has ever seen. The constable strolls by on patrol. This passage signals the end of a typical day.
The second act occurs some years later. After more comments by the Stage Manager, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb return to the stage to prepare for a wedding. Both receive deliveries from the milkman and invite him and his wife to the ceremony.
George Gibbs comes downstairs and tells his mother that he is going across the yard to see Emily, his girl; they are to be married later that day. When he reaches the Webbs' house, Mrs. Webb reminds him that the groom should not see the bride on the day of the wedding. George talks to his future father-in-law until Mrs. Webb reappears and sends George home so that Emily can come downstairs to breakfast.
The Stage Manager then turns back time to the day when George and Emily first discover their love for each other. George stops Emily on their way home from school. He has just been elected president of the senior class; Emily is secretary-treasurer.
He asks her why she is mad at him. Emily admonishes George for immersing himself in baseball and forgetting his friends. He assures Emily that he has not forgotten her. George emphasizes that Emily is special to him and that she remains in his thoughts. Emily feels that she is mistaken about George and returns his affection. They part after having acknowledged their mutual love. The Stage Manager enters and explains that he will serve as minister and makes further comments about weddings. Mrs. Webb expresses fear about losing her daughter. Then George owns up to momentary doubts about getting married. In the meantime, Emily relates her qualms to her father. As soon as George and Emily see each other, they overcome their fears. The ceremony takes place in the background while the audience hears the comments of Mrs. Soames, a wedding guest. Then the Stage Manager returns in his original persona to make closing remarks.
The third act occurs in the cemetery at the burial of Emily Webb Gibbs, who has just died in childbirth and left her husband and four-year-old son. Like any newcomer, she is uneasy among the dead; she wonders how long the feeling will last. After the mourners leave the cemetery, she longs to return to life for a single day. The other spirits try to dissuade her, but she insists. Emily chooses to relive her twelfth birthday, but when she returns to earth, she discovers that people live their lives without appreciating or sharing the moment of living. They overlook the joy found in simple everyday activities. Emotionally unable to endure a full day of her past, Emily returns to the cemetery. There, at night, she watches George come to grieve at her grave. Emily perceives that the living understand little about death and even less about being alive.