LENOX, MASS. — Actress Annette Miller is drawn to playing women with loud, strong voices — Golda Meier, Maria Callas, Diana Vreeland, Martha Mitchell; the fictitious Ruth Steiner, a renowned short story writer, in Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories."
Her newest role, an 80-year-old reclusive writer named Bemadette Kahn, may be "sotto voce" (hushed, quiet voice) in Nilo Cruz' play of the same name, but she is no less strong.
"She gives voice to the voiceless," says Daniel Gidron, who is directing Miller in "Sotto Voce," which, after a week of previews, officially opens at 8:30 p.m. Friday, in Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it is scheduled to run through Sept. 11.
Miller says she's wanted to tell Bemadette's story ever since she saw "Sotto Voce" in its limited-run world premiere at Off-Broadway's Theater for a New City in February/March 2014.
"I was just blown away," Miller said during a recent interview in a backstage lounge at the Bernstein Theatre, where she was joined by Gidron, who directed Miller in "Full Gallop" and "Master Class" at Shakespeare & Company and "Golda's Balcony" at Shakespeare & Company, twice, and in Boston.
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in drama for "Anna in the Tropics," Cruz wrote "Sotto Voce" on a commission from Theater for a New City and directed its world premiere. The play is set against the background of the fate of the S.S. St. Louis, which set sail from Germany in 1939 bound for Cuba with more than 900 Jewish refugees who were fleeing Hitler. But Cuba denied the ship entry. So did the United States, so did Canada. The St. Louis was forced to return to Germany where the passengers faced certain death.
"Sotto Voce" is set decades later, as a young Jewish-Cuban researcher who is trying to connect with an 80-year-old woman named Bemadette Kahn, a widely respected, reclusive Jewish writer who was separated from her Jewish lover when he boarded the St. Louis.
It's a play about time, love, how we recapture what has been lost, that plays out in the real physical world and in a world of dream and memory.
"It's a gorgeous story," said Gidron. "Annette gave me the script and I fell in love with it."
"I connected with this woman right from the get-go," Miller said. "This is a woman who is wrapped in loss, longing for what could have been. The language takes me to poetic places. And the Holocaust is powerful for me."
Gidron says his biggest challenge in approaching "Sotto Voce" has been to tell the story in a manner that makes clear the distinctions between the play's physical and metaphysical planes; to make understandable to audiences what is happening literally and what isn't; "to make that world of shadow palpable," especially the play's final sequence.
"I know the end is unclear," Gidron said, "so we have to make it clear in its ambiguity."
Joining Miller in the cast are Shakespeare & Company newcomers Jaime Carrillo as the Cuban-Jewish researcher, Saquiel, and Evelyn Howe as Bemadette's housekeeper, Lucila. The two also play characters from Bemadette's past — her ill-fated lover, Ariel, and his sister, Nina.
"All five characters are refugees," Gidron notes. "None of them is at home. They are each longing for a place they chose to leave."
Cruz wrote "Sotto Voce" before the United States resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba; before the plight of the Syrian refugees took center stage in news cycle.
"We are artists performing now," Miller said. "It all resonates."