Thespian at heart
Daytime television star Tom Degnan is thriving in his inaugural season with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
By Naila Francis
The bucolic village of Center Valley in Lehigh County may be the last place one would expect to find Tom Degnan.
Yet far from the unruly clip and teeming restlessness of life in New York City and the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where he lives, the former soap star, best known for playing Joey Buchanan on “One Life to Live,” is raving about the verdant stretches of open space, the soothing quiet, the slower hum that scrapes against his days.
That he’s in the area for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which began in June, may seem surprising, too. But Degnan, despite having found his celebrity primarily in daytime television, counts the Bard among the playwrights he most reveres on a list that includes Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
So to be participating in the 21st annual festival at DeSales University, starring in both Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” is a “phenomenal experience” for the Yardley native.
” ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ has been a show I’ve wanted to tackle since grad school because it’s Williams and there’s a certain poeticism with how he writes,” says Degnan, who received his master’s degree in theater from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2009. ” ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ I’ve seen a couple of times. I love the dynamics of it. It’s a great Shakespeare comedy.”
The chance to work with some of the region’s most talented actors — Bristol’s Jo Twiss among them — was also one he couldn’t pass up when he received a text from DeSales alum Marnie Schulenburg earlier this year suggesting him for the roles of Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Schulenberg, who starred in the acclaimed off-Broadway revival of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” this past spring, had done “South Pacific” at the festival last year. She and Degnan knew each other from working together on “As the World Turns” — he was cast as Ryan Morgan, a mysterious war veteran, on the soap in 2009 before winning the role of Joey on “One Life to Live” a year later — and even then, she’d appreciated how much he was willing to give to his craft.
“His heart and passion for art and to be a good person are so admirable and rare in this business,” says Schulenberg, whose fiance, Zack Robidas, will be sharing the stage with Degnan in “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has always been a place for incredibly well-trained artists to go and do the shows they really want to do in a format that makes them creatively challenged, fulfilled and appreciated in a way they hadn’t been before. That’s why people always return, and that’s why I knew Tom would be a great fit here.
“He is a talented, trained classical actor who has been mainly doing television and needed his soul filled with the thrill and challenge of live theater again.”
Degnan, who was reared in Moorestown, N.J., is part of the festival’s repertoire company of actors who will be appearing simultaneously in two different plays with alternating performances. Though he’d previously done as many as three shows a day as part of summer stock, he knew tackling two roles at the same time for an extended period — “Much Ado” is onstage now and “Cat” opens Saturday — would be a challenge.
“That’s the fun of it. That’s why you do it,” he says. “I just hope I don’t start throwing out lines from two different shows while I’m doing one.”
He’s thoroughly enjoying his Shakespearean turn as an envious, mischief-making villain attempting to break up a romantic match in “Much Ado’s” tale of two courtships, but playing such an iconic tortured soul as Brick, the alcoholic son of a family in crisis in Williams’ blistering melodrama of Southern mendacity, is exhilarating.
“This is a play that looks at truth and honesty, and who can face the truth not only about others but about themselves,” says Degnan. “It’s a heavy show, but it’s laden with some beautiful language. Having a chance to play somebody like Brick is a dream.”
Festival producing artistic director Patrick Mulcahy claims Degnan was a natural choice for the aging football hero.
“In addition to meeting the physical requirements for the role … Tom has the right balance of understatement and psychic intensity for Brick,” he says. “Great plays deserve terrific actors and Tom is one.”
Degnan hadn’t decided upon a career in TV when he moved to New York after grad school but got his first job starring in the 2009 independent film “Handsome Harry” with Jamey Sheridan and Steve Buscemi. From there, offers for television began coming in and he appeared in small roles on shows such as “Lipstick Jungle,” “Law & Order” and “The Usuals” before being entering the world of sudsy drama.
“You go sometimes where the work is,” he says of his television career, noting the rigorous training ground that soaps provided. “With prime time, you’re shooting one episode over eight days. With soaps, you’re doing one episode in an eight-hour day. You get a ton of lines and you don’t have that much time to learn them and turn them into something.”
Thankfully, co-stars like Erika Slazek — an Emmy-winning “OLTL” veteran — and Jerry verDorn went out of their way to make him feel comfortable. Though Degnan left the show a few months before its final episode aired in January, he was sad to see it canceled and laments the fate of soap operas in general — and how many talented people have lost their jobs — with only four remaining on the air.
For now, he’s not counting out a return to television but can’t deny the greater appeal of live performance.
“There’s that uncertainty. If you’re onstage and something unplanned happens, you just have to roll with it, and that’s exciting,” he says. “With TV and film, you can always get another take.”
For all his passion for theater, Degnan, who ran track at Moorestown High School, had a different vision of what he’d be doing when he attended the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad.
“I had this really strange idea in my head that I’d be running hurdles. Then you walk on campus and everyone is so much bigger and stronger and faster than you are, and you realize, ‘Yeah, I can’t do this,’ ” he says.
He chose to major in finance but to fulfill his non-business elective requirements ended up in an introductory theater class because his first choice, a jazz studies class — he’d also played jazz percussion in high school — was filled. Figuring he would need all the help he could get, he jumped at his professor’s offer to give students one point of extra credit for each show for which they auditioned.
Degnan was surprised to not only get the first production he tried out for but to discover he enjoyed doing it. Still, he hesitated to audition for the MFA program at Case Western until his parents — Moorestown’s Tom and Anne Degnan — encouraged him to go for it.
These days, he’s not only building his theater resume, he’s tending a fledgling music career, playing bass and singing backup vocals with Reserved For Rondee. The rock band, which he formed in 2009 with “a couple of frustrated actors,” including former “As the World Turns” co-star Billy Magnussen, released its first EP earlier this year.
“Whatever I can enjoy doing as an artist and keep growing, whether it’s in acting or other things, that’s what’s fun for me — finding something difficult and challenging,” says Degnan. “Sometimes, it’s really difficult and challenging — but that’s when you learn a lot about yourself.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer