The play's focus is Southern Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where fathers considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result of this practice, her avaricious brothers Benjamin and Oscar are independently wealthy, while she must rely upon her sickly, wheelchair-using husband Horace for financial support.
Regina's brother Oscar married Birdie, his much-maligned alcoholic wife, solely to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields. Oscar now wants to join forces with his brother, Benjamin, to construct a cotton mill. They need an additional $75,000 and approach their sister, asking her to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes marriage between his son Leo and Regina's daughter Alexandra—first cousins—as a means of getting Horace's money, but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. Horace refuses when Regina asks him outright for the money, so Leo, a bank teller, is pressured into stealing Horace's railroad bonds from the bank's safety deposit box.
Horace, after discovering this, tells Regina he is going to change his will in favor of their daughter, and also will claim he gave Leo the bonds as a loan, thereby cutting Regina out of the deal completely. When he suffers a heart attack during this chat, she makes no effort to help him. He dies within hours, without anyone knowing his plan and before changing his will. This leaves Regina free to blackmail her brothers by threatening to report Leo's theft unless they give her 75% ownership in the cotton mill (it is, in Regina's mind, a fair exchange for the stolen bonds). The price Regina ultimately pays for her evil deeds is the loss of her daughter Alexandra's love and respect. Regina's actions cause Alexandra to finally understand the importance of not idly watching people do evil. She tells Regina she will not watch her be "one who eats the earth," and abandons her. Having let her husband die, alienated her brothers, and driven away her only child, Regina is left wealthy but completely alone.