LENOX -- The setting for Shakespeare & Company's production of Terrence McNally's "Master Class" is a music studio -- gray, spare, sterile, stripped of personality, a cell more than a comforting atmosphere. Comfort is the last thing any of its visitors will feel over the two-hour course of McNally's enigmatic play, which is being given an uneven production in Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
The centerpiece is famed opera singer Maria Callas, played skillfully by Annette Miller, who has come to give advice to three student singers -- a soprano named Sophie (played with self-conscious nervousness by Nora Menken); a tenor named Tony (Alex Donaldson in a performance that wavers between credibility and artificiality) and another soprano, Sharon (an obvious and actorly Deborah Grausman).
Callas is nearly as hard on the students -- insulting, patronizing, demanding -- as she is on herself. She drifts into waves of memory, recrimination over sacrifices made for her art, for her former longtime lover, Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. It's as if, now, at the downward side of her career, she's desperately struggling to find her true self amid the various roles she's played in life and on the opera stage.
Miller frames all this purposefully; her most telling, revealing moments coming with a turn of her fingers, a curve of her wrists; girlish playfully flirtatious hips; phrasing in her voice that suggests more than what Callas says (her telling interest, for example, in the fact that the young piano accompanist Manny, well-played by Luke Reed, is Jewish hints at something dark and unwelcoming).
And yet for all that McNally has poured into "Master Class" he has very little to show for it. McNally's Callas is little more than a self-serving. self-pitying creation who summons little empathy and even less sympathy. There is dramatic pushback from Sharon and from a feisty stagehand (played effectively by Josephine Wilson) but the rest adds up to little mire than a lot of wailing.
Despite Miller's skill, the Callas who springs from McNally's imagination hardly seems worth caring about.