The Broadway actress Kerry O’Malley is currently spending her evenings on Boston Common appearing as Olivia in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Twelfth Night.”
Directed by Steven Maler, the Bard’s classic comedy of love in disguise runs through August 10. All performances are free and open the public.
Although the Nashua, NH, native left New England long ago to build an enviable career on stage and screen, Boston remains a constant in both her personal life and her performance schedule. She has returned again and again to star in “White Christmas” at The Citi Wang, appear in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Hatch Shell, study at Harvard’s A.R.T. Institute and play the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
“I love it here so much” she said after a recent rehearsal. “If I felt I could make a full time career here as an actor, I would do it in a heartbeat . . . My parents are in New Hampshire and my sister is in Framingham. I have an aunt in Rhode Island. Aunts and cousins on the Cape. Everybody’s very close and I feel so supported here. So many good friends.” (Sister of the actor-writer-producer Mike O’Malley, she also remains a diehard Boston sports fan.)
Having so much family in the area turns out to be a great perk for business. “My parents say, if you cast an O’Malley, you’re guaranteed you’re gonna sell out,” she said with a laugh.
The stage was an early influence in Kerry’s life. “My parents loved going to the theater,” she said. “We went to all the Broadway stuff in Boston. ‘Annie’ and ‘Peter Pan.’ We would go to ‘The Nutcracker.’ I remember hounding my parents to take me to ‘Shear Madness’ and ‘Forbidden Broadway,’ of course.”
She began singing in the folk group at her local church. “Remember Folk Mass?” she said. Then it was on to Kids Into Drama, a Nashua theater group led by Robert Havens. “My first show with them was ‘H.M.S. Pinafore.’ We were ambitious, right?” At Mount St. Mary’s school, she joined the drama club.
Kerry’s aunt, Regina O’Malley, had attended Boston Conservatory before going on to establish a career in New York. This made a career of her own appear viable. “We had an example of someone in the family, someone who was making a living as a professional actor. So that barrier to acceptance was already gone. We knew someone who was really doing it.”
A pivotal career decision came at Duke University. She had enrolled as a Navy ROTC candidate. But she had also been cast in a musical on campus that clashed with her first sailing weekend. The theater won out.
It was another turn of luck when she interned with designer Richard Riddell on a pre-Broadway run of “A Walk in the Woods” playing at Duke. Riddell would go on to head the respected A.R.T Institute at Harvard. She had already read a lot of Robert Brustein’s writings and was drawn to study there.
“It was a really great time for me,” she said, “because my training at Duke had been very rigid. [The A.R.T] was almost like going from a classical ballet or classical violin world to being put in a jazz band or a modern dance troupe. I went from something that was rigid and structured to something that made you force yourself to imagine your creativity in a different way. It was the right place for me at the time.”
Today, her Broadway credits range from “Into The Woods” and “Billy Elliot” to “Promises, Promises” and “Finian’s Rainbow” at Irish Repertory Theatre. She has also had recurring roles on a number of iconic cable series including “Boardwalk Empire,” ”Shameless,” “Brotherhood” and “Those Who Kill,” among others.
The diversity of her accomplishments has been a combination of planning and opportunity. “I’ve been very consciously attempting to choose the next project based on the opposite of what I’ve previously done. If I do a musical, I try not to follow that with a musical. I try to do a play or a TV show. And then after I’ve done a TV show for a while, I try to do a comedy.”
“That makes it sound like there’s a lot of choice in the matter,” she said. “Quite frankly, you audition for what’s available. But I’ve turned down auditioning for things that I felt were too close to what I just did. It really is a mixture. I’ve been really lucky.”
As to television? “My TV career, has, in a large part, been based on my ethnicity and cultural eritage. ‘Brotherhood’ is an Irish American family. I’m an Irish American on ‘Shameless.’ ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ I played an Irish American. I’ve been really lucky that people want to watch stories about Irish Americans,” she said with another laugh. “It’s been my bread and butter. That’s been just sheer luck, being in the right place at the right time with the right skills – as long as they keep telling stories about Irish Americans.”
In a similar vein, she’s become addicted to researching her genealogy. (She’s named for County Kerry, after all.) She’s learned that her great grandfather, Anthony O’Malley, arrived in the US in 1901 on the USS Ivernia. His wife Bridget was pregnant, which meant that Kerry’s grandfather, also named Anthony, would be the first in this O’Malley family to be born in America.
Her mother’s McGuire heritage is traced to Limerick, via the Barretts and Connors. Her great-great grandfather, John Connors, fought for the Union during the Civil War, was injured at the Wilderness, and received a pension for his service.
The Barretts had nine children. They lost one child in infancy and would see six others die in a diphtheria epidemic. Their father dug all the graves for his little ones. Kerry’s great grandmother proved to be the one surviving daughter. When the woman was asked in an oral family history how she dealt with such tragedy, Kerry remembers, “She said, ‘I would go into the fields and scream.’ It just makes your hair stand up.”
She heartily encourages others interested in their heritage to quiz older relatives about family history while they still have the opportunity. “I keep saying to my friends, ‘Ask your family. Ask them before they’re gone.’ There are so many great stories and they’re not being told. There’s so much I want to know.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Twelfth Night,” Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Free Shakespeare On The Common, through Aug. 10, on Boston Common at the Parkman Bandstand. Information: 617-426-0863 or commshakes.org.