There are five actors (3m, 2w) in Le Fanu’s Dream (pronounced LEFF-anew) who enter and disappear on a dark set representing a park and rooms in a house on Merrion Square in Dublin from the 1840s to the 1870s. We hear clocks ticking as lights come up on Susanna, a young woman dressed in white. She tells us that towards the end of his life Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, “celebrated author of ghost and mystery stories,” suffered from nightmares in which he found himself walking in ruins in Phoenix Park. Le Fanu walks on as ravens caw and, facing downstage, looks up at something we can’t see. Susanna says that he hears an ominous creaking noise and sees that the house is going to collapse on him, but he cannot move. We hear the sound of a wall crashing down as the lights go out and ravens caw in the darkness.
In moonlight we see Carmilla, in white, sobbing on a park bench in front of a hedge. Le Fanu asks if he can help, and she says she has been abandoned by a company of actors. He says she can stay in his house and act as his secretary. When she asks if his wife will object, he says his wife is dead, and Susanna appears in the empty oval mirror frame, looking at them. Carmilla introduces herself as Miss Smith and she and Le Fanu walk into the darkness. Susanna tells us from the oval frame that the young woman proved to be “surprisingly efficient,” but Le Fanu still had bad dreams. Susanna sits on the park bench, describing a dream in which two hands come through the hedge and slowly pull a young girl through the hedge, an action that happens to Susanna as the lights fade out.
We hear birds singing and see Carmilla reading theatrical reviews in a newspaper. She tells Le Fanu she loves the house because, like an old theatre, it is full of ghosts. She says she thinks our life on earth is a performance watched by ghosts. Le Fanu tells her of a dream he had about finding a dead girl lying at the foot of a low brick wall and seeing two red eyes staring at him. Carmilla says that a dead girl was found murdered in Phoenix Park at the foot of a low brick wall and all the blood had been drained from her body. When Carmilla asks how his wife died, Le Fanusays that her problems began on their wedding night.
We hear owls and see Susanna sitting on the bed, speaking of “the unspeakable mad violation in hell,” and telling Le Fanu that someone with red eyes is looking at her in the dark. Carmilla moves into the empty oval frame and speaks to Susanna from it. Susanna wants Le Fanu to cover the mirrors and sleep in another room. Carmilla steps out of the frame and Le Fanu remarks on how similar she is to his wife’s sister. As they sit at the table with Brother and Susanna, Carmilla transforms into the sister, “bright, bubbly, flirtatious, a little reckless, and a bit wicked.” Sister asks how Susanna and Le Fanu slept on their wedding night and assumes that “a successful hymeneal execution has been accomplished.” Susanna is upset to learn that Le Fanu and Sister were writing letters to each other before the marriage, referring to Susanna as Miss Smith Bluebeard. Susanna tells Le Fanu that his mind is full of puppets, peopled by a grotesque collection of Swedenborgian doppelgangers. After she storms out, Le Fanu says he can’t find her, and Sister says that she and Susanna grew up in the house and know all its secret places.
In the next scene, the sisters are sitting on the park bench, and Susanna says she feels as if something is watching her, something that lives in the mirror. She says Le Fanu talks to imaginary people as he writes, as if his entire life was one great hallucination. She asks if Sister thinks of their father, and Sister says she stole Papa’s razor from his corpse and Susanna may borrow it if she decides to cut her husband’s throat as he sleeps. The light fades on them and comes up on Le Fanu writing late at night, saying he is sometimes visited by his dead great-uncle, the playwright Richard Brindsley Sheridan. Sheridan appears “in all his decayed and cobweb covered late 18th century glory,” telling Le Fanu that he disapproves of his unhappiness over his wife’s death and asserting his conviction that we are put on this earth to engage in as much copulation as is humanly possible. He says the secret of life is to jump on a willing woman before she changes her mind. Sheridan thinks he hears someone calling him to rehearse a play in Hell because there’s always something wrong with the second act. He goes into the darkness as Susanna enters asking Le Fanu why he stays up so late writing and talking to imaginary people. She says that there have been moments when she has not been entirely horrified by his nocturnal violations, but she thinks that he intends to murder her. Le Fanu says her dark fantasies are brought on by loneliness and fear and are not real.
Talking with Brother, Le Fanu asks him what he and Susanna talked about when they walked in the garden. Le Fanu then watches as Susanna tells Brother that when her husband touches her she feels the “rough, filthy digits of the Evil One.” Sister and Le Fanu appear, congratulating Brother on the upcoming birth of his child. Susanna says that her three children are goblins and she doesn’t want her husband playing with her teats in bed. Then, at night, we hear a ticking clock, wind, and owls, and see Le Fanu asleep at his desk. Susanna appears in the mirror frame, saying that he has been reading Swedenborg on the multitude of intersecting worlds. Swedenborg, played by the actor who did Sheridan and will later play Papa, crawls out from under the bed and speaks with a Swedish accent about the inner eye that can see oceans of spirits, worlds within worlds. Le Fanu wakes and when Swedenborg asks him what one thing he wants to know above all others, Le Fanu says he wants to know why his wife sobs uncontrollably when he touches her. Swedenborg munches on a meatball, says his wife is dead, and crawls back under the bed.
We hear a creaking sound and the ticking of clocks as Carmilla, in a white nightgown, steps into the light. She says she keeps hearing voices and wonders if she could be of any assistance to Le Fanu. They look at each other as Susanna watches from the frame and, after Le Fanu moves into the shadows, goes to the bed. We hear voices whispering as Carmilla appears in the frame, talks with Susanna, and gets into bed with her. Le Fanu moves into the light, apparently not seeing Carmilla, and Susanna tells him that a young woman got into bed with her and held her. Carmillasmiles at Le Fanu as she cuddles with Susanna and when Le Fanu says that the only thing he is certain of if his love for Susanna, she tells him everything he is certain of is a lie.
Brother tells Le Fanu, walking in the park with thunder and lightning, that he must come in out of the storm. Le Fanu says that Susanna caught doubt from him and it drove her mad and killed her. Lights come up on Susanna in bed speaking the letter she is writing to God. She says she knows God is insane and is really Satan who lives in the mirror and copulates with the vampire girl. She says there is no love, no salvation, only darkness and fear and something pressing against her in the night. She says she felt a hand clutching her throat until she could not breathe and her senses left her. We hear ticking clocks and see Susanna on the bed, then a door creaking open, and Papa going to the bed. Susanna says she has missed Papa since he died and he says there is room for her to cuddle in his coffin. He asks why her sister was in bed with her. She says her sister was comforting her the way Papa comforted her. He starts climbing onto the bed and she screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” as the light goes out on them.
Le Fanu awakens at his desk from a nightmare and is told by Carmilla that his wife was disgusted and horrified by his touch not because of anything terrible her father did to her. She asks how his wife died and light fades on her and comes up on Susanna in bed screaming. Le Fanu is where Papa was and Susanna says some monstrous, pawing creature was on top of her so that she couldn’t breathe. She says Le Fanu writes about men murdering women and he shakes her, saying he does not want to kill her, but she says sex, death, and writing are all the same thing. Carmilla says he put his hands over her face and raped and smothered her. Le Fanu denies it, but Carmilla says she saw it from inside the mirror. She thinks Le Fanu should cut his throat with a razor.
Le Fanu wanders in the dark as ravens caw and we hear the voices of Susanna and Carmilla reprising the opening lines of the play about Le Fanu’s nightmares and the collapse of a debilitated mansion. Le Fanu says there is no house, no wall; he says he is innocent and is not responsible for his wife’s death. He sits on the bench, saying he has conquered the nightmare and no longer has anything to fear. Two hands come out of the hedge and wrap around his neck. He screams and is pulled through the hedge as lights come up on Carmilla and Susanna sitting on the bed. They say they have the house to themselves and can be alone together, forever. Carmilla kisses Susanna’s lips, then her neck, then her breasts as the light fades and goes out.