Nesting: The Second Home Takes Center Stage
Edith Wharton's horses once lived here; now Annette & Michael Miller do
Many people profess that a second home changes their life, but actress Annette Miller can make the case more emphatically and convincingly than most. Nearly twenty years ago, she and husband, Michael, who were living in Newton, MA, started looking for a little weekend house in the Berkshires. The place they found was Edith Wharton’s one-time ice house and carriage house in Lenox, which had been combined into a funky four bedroom cottage with a spiral staircase in the living room that led to the master bedroom. The property came with an enormous barn where some neighbors still kept their horses, and it had views across the road to Laurel Lake, which had sealed the deal. “I wanted to be able to look out at water,” says Miller, who wasn’t sure she even wanted a second home. “I always thought one house was enough!”
The fact that the Millers’ property abutted The Mount, the Edith Wharton Estate that was then the home of Tina Packer’s Shakespeare & Company, was a mere coincidence. “I knew Tina, of course, but more of my friends—people like Annie Bancroft, Bill Gibson and A.R. Gurney—were involved with Berkshire Theatre Festival,” recalls Miller. But as she became more acquainted with Shakespeare & Company’s gutsy style of acting, Miller could envision herself as part of the troupe that was still putting on plays in The Mount’s stables, woods, and drawing rooms. “So in 1996, I signed up for the workshop that you have to take to become part of the company,” explains Miller, who is opening this week at Shakespeare & Company as the mother-in-law in The Ladies Man, a farce that’s been “freely translated and adapted” from Georges Feydeau’s Tailleur Pour Dames. “The company has a particular way of working and you have to speak the common language.” At Shakespeare & Company, Miller’s own voice has matured and it’s powerful enough to carry a show by itself. She has done three one-woman plays at Shakespeare & Company in the past seven seasons: She originated the title role of the first female prime minister of Israel in Golda’s Balcony; and she played the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland in Full Gallup (far right) and the Watergate whistle blower in Martha Mitchell Calling (above).
When Miller first started working with Shakespeare & Company, her husband started to pay attention to his wife’s work in a way he’d never done before. “Until then, our work lives were separate—he did his thing and I did mine,” she said. Mike Miller joined the Shakespeare & Company’s board in 1997, and soon became the chairman and helped mastermind its purchase of a 63-acre, 22-building campus on Kemble Street in Lenox in 2000.
Like her theatrical alter egos, Annette Miller is a passionate, larger than life character, and she and her husband have made their home a dramatic and gemütlichkeit stage for their private life. “By 2000, we had six grandchildren and we thought of expanding the house,” she recalls. “We had this barn so we called in several architects. I knew what I wanted. I wanted it modern. I wanted windows. I wanted to break the fourth wall, as we say in the theater.”
Architect Stephan Green understood Annette’s vision, and worked with a restoration expert, David Babcock, to preserve the barn, which required moving the foundation. (Coincidentally, Green has designed the new $7.5 million dollar production center and 199 seat theater that Shakespeare & Company is opening this summer.) They maintained the century-old barn’s integrity while upping the drama quotient with a sweeping metal staircase that goes to the rafters and putting the majestic old sliding barn doors inside to flank the gigantic windows that overlook the landscaped courtyard designed by Walt Cudnohufsky. Green managed to give Annette a sleek, fire-engine red open kitchen that is cleverly positioned in a corner so that it does not upstage the rest of the rustic structure. And he even kept some of the original horse stalls at one end of the building by the front door; you look in from a big plate glass window as if it were a diorama.
Annette is glad that she only has a five minute commute to get to work these days because acting in a farce with a younger cast is exhausting. “There are five doors and a window—it’s a challenge to remember which ones you go in and out of,” she says, laughing. But the rehearsal process is exhilarating too. “I am in awe of how we are given the spontaneity and freedom to explore and illuminate the script and the energy of my fellow actors.” She feels lucky that she’s been able to integrate her personal and professional lives in Lenox. “You buy a house in the backyard of a great theater company…” she says and pauses for a beat. “It’s just one of those serendipitous things in life.”
The original and quite elaborate barn doors were saved; they are now merely interior decoration.
Miller wanted a sleek, fire-engine red kitchen and Green acquiesced to his client’s wishes with cabinets by Valcucine.
Green designed a theatrical, sculptural staircase to link the barn’s three levels.
Miller has a wall of her theater memorabilia in the original living room, which was once Edith Wharton’s ice house.
Their involvement with Shakespeare & Company brought Annette and Michael Miller closer together.