A few years ago Tracey Maloney played the doomed Desdemona in a staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello” at a women’s prison. One of the inmates spoke directly to Maloney’s character at intermission.

“Don’t worry,” she told Desdemona/Maloney. “We’ve got your back.”

If theatergoers want to protect the people Maloney plays onstage — to cuddle them, comfort them, keep them out of harm’s way — it’s a testament to her ability to get into the gnarly, roiling souls of her characters, to let us see not only the hurt, but the hope, too.

In high school, a teacher told Maloney she had the convivial exterior of a cheerleader and the tortured soul of Hamlet.

A charismatic actress with arresting azure eyes, Kate Hepburn-esque cheekbones and a buttery voice, she has become one of the most visible personalities on the Twin Cities stage over the past two decades, portraying a host of women seeking ways out of treacherous emotional and physical terrain.

At the Guthrie, she played the shy and brittle Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “A Glass Menagerie,” and the quiet wife of an obnoxious loudmouth who finally explodes in “The God of Carnage.” And in David Harrower’s harrowing “Blackbird,” she gave a tense, taut performance as Una, a 27-year-old woman who encounters a man with whom she had a sexual relationship at age 12.

That 2008 performance caught the eye of director Marion McClinton, who had actually gone to see her co-star, Guthrie veteran Stephen Yoakam: “When I saw Tracey, I said, ‘Who’s that little white girl hanging so tight with Yoak?’ Understand, Yoak’s a giant who jams when he’s onstage. And she was right there, matching him toe to toe.”

Last year when McClinton staged his own “Othello” at the Guthrie, he asked Maloney to reprise her role as Desdemona. “She has an honest sense of innocence on stage, an honest sense of strength,” he said. “Tracey doesn’t hit false notes.”

Private person

On stage Maloney has charisma and power for days. Offstage she is a lithe sprite who disappears in an Uptown Minneapolis restaurant crowd. A private person, she would rather talk about her two dogs or her characters than herself.

While she is loath to acknowledge her gifts — “there are a lot of really talented actors in this community,” she says — others readily do so. Colleagues hail her as “a consummate artist,” “a deep diver” and “someone with both the delicacy and strength of silk.”

“Tracey is very emotionally available as a person and as an actor,” said frequent castmate Sally Wingert. “She’s not playing at something. She really lets the thought go down into her being and then she lives it onstage.”

Maloney brushes aside compliments, though. “I got into theater because I wanted to find out more about people and help people,” she said, pointing to the example of her mother, who was a government employee in Dayton, Ohio. “She did social work, and that’s what I wanted to be growing up. I wanted to find out more about people’s lives so I could try to make things better for them.”

Her mother and father, who worked in labor relations for Chrysler, divorced when she was in fifth grade, leaving Maloney and her brother confused and vulnerable. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know what’s happening, or why,” she said. “But they both remarried later and are better for it.”

Her parents exposed her to the arts, and she would go to shows, but when Maloney went off to college at Miami University in Ohio, her intended career was social work. Then she auditioned for a college production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” — and got a role playing a hooker.

It didn’t matter what the part was. She was down the theater rabbit hole. “I was trying to get into the mind of someone, to find out what made her tick,” she recalled. “Maybe it was the social work thing of considering the world through someone else’s eyes.

“Everyone has, or should have, a joy or something that makes life inspiring for them. Theater was it for me. Suddenly, school was a total joy. It was pretty magical, and, for better or worse, it felt completely like theater was what I needed to do.”

After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree, she spent a year as an apprentice at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, working with the likes of avant-garde theater-maker Anne Bogart. She roomed with Liz Engelman, a dramaturge with Twin Cities connections, and became friends with an apprentice from Minnesota, Sarah Agnew.

“They talked up theater in Minneapolis so much, it was a no-brainer for me to move here,” she said. “Plus, the music that was on my radar at the time was all coming out of here, from Prince to Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. I packed up the car and drove to the Twin Cities, where I stayed with Sarah for a little while, then my first boyfriend, who was in the Afghan Whigs.”

That would be guitar player Rick McCollum, whom she met in Louisville. They dated for a decade.

What was it like to date a rock star? “Rick’s one of the best guitarists out there, and it was nice that when they played Letterman, he had a note on his guitar that said, ‘Hi, honey.’ ”

Her big break

While her boyfriend toured the country, Maloney pursued her theater dreams at small venues. She caught the eye of Ralph Remington, founding artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre, when she did a sketch at Bryant-Lake Bowl. He was looking for someone to play the girlfriend of the lead in Walter Allen Bennett’s interracial drama “This City of Dreams.”

“The character had to be vulnerable, tough and an old soul at the same time,” Remington said. “I knew Tracey was perfect.”

Soon she began winning roles at most of the Twin Cities’ premier stages, slaying audiences while broadening her repertoire beyond ingénue roles.

“Tracey doesn’t usually get cast in funny roles, but one of the things I love about her are her comic instincts,” said Michelle Hensley, founding artistic director of Ten Thousand Things. “When we first cast her, we paired her with Kevin Kling for this wild Gertrude Stein operetta. Tracey jumped in fearlessly, and was hilarious.”

Like other directors in town, Hensley went on to cast Maloney in plenty of other shows, including that first “Othello.” When it was performed at a men’s prison whose population included a cohort of sex offenders, the audience cheered Desdemona’s death scene. That frightened Maloney: “It was upsetting, and hard to stay open in a fearful environment like that.”

Hensley saw her courage that day and in subsequent performances.

“So much of acting is about baring your soul,” Hensley said. “It takes a lot of character and strength to come back after something like that and still deliver with all the openness and vulnerability that the character requires.”

A stable life

Maloney has built a stable life around acting. Owing to voice-over work on ads for the likes of General Mills, Purina, Kmart and Nexxus shampoo, her voice is familiar to Americans across the country.

“What a marvelous voice,” said actor and ad agency owner Mark Benninghofen, who has used Maloney for 10 years. “It’s got this sex appeal combined with a quiet, next-door-neighbor authority. Tracey makes you feel like you’re making the right decision by doing what she’s telling you to do.”

Maloney played a flight attendant in the 2011 film comedy “Cedar Rapids” and a nurse in David Lynch’s 1999 movie “The Straight Story,” where her scene partner was Sissy Spacek. “I know David Lynch has a reputation for being slightly strange, but he was the kindest, gentlest man to work with,” Maloney said.

In 2006 she married fellow actor Kris Nelson, with Wingert officiating. The couple bought a home near Minnehaha Falls. They hike a lot. She does yoga and meditation. She also trains at the gym, including boxing.

“People think that being strong means showing muscle and never being vulnerable, that vulnerability is a weakness,” said her husband. “But it requires strength to be vulnerable. And Trace has a tremendous amount of strength.”

Maloney volunteers at homeless shelters and she’s politically active, especially around issues of marriage equality, women’s rights and the environment. She does not like to talk about her outside activities, except to say they are all part of the whole. As a child, she wanted to get under the skin of her parents, her neighbors, other people. Understanding others is to understand yourself, she believes.

Her latest role is in Dark and Stormy Theatre’s production of William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities,” about a would-be rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker. Maloney plays a friend of the protagonist in the drama, opening Thursday.

“When I first read it, I thought: I don’t like this or that about her,” she said. “Now I go: Get in there and figure out who she is. Let yourself be weak, if that’s what it has to be. Let yourself be the character, even if you think she’s wrong. I’m basically stripping down until I get to the place where I stop judging her.”

Sounds like advice that could apply beyond the stage.

“On a good day, when you can do it, that’s how you live in the world,” she said.