Seeing her dad in a play when she was about 8 years old changed Daisy Eagan’s life.
Her father had been an actor in the 1960s, and had given it up before deciding on a whim to appear in the show that gave Eagan her first theatrical memory — and an aha moment.
“I had been terribly bullied in school,” said the actress, now 38, and raising her 5-year-old son in her hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. “The idea of getting to be somebody else was very, very appealing to me.”
Thirty years later, after multiple awards, some disillusionment and a break from the spotlight, theater still beckons, she said by phone from a tour stop in Boston with her latest show, “The Humans.”
The 2016 multiple Tony Award-winning Best Play full of humor and heartbreak is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center from Tuesday through April 8.
Playing her parents in the star-studded cast are Richard Thomas, best-known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of John-Boy Walton, and Pamela Reed, instantly recognizable as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s co-star in the film “Kindergarten Cop” and for playing Amy Poehler’s mom in television’s “Parks and Recreation.”
Eagan’s real-life parents were “reluctantly supportive” when their little girl announced that she wanted to try acting.
“My mom had a lot of images of ruined Hollywood starlets in her mind, and she did not want me, rightly so, going down that path,” she said. “They found an audition for a small local production of a new musical. I think they thought I would either audition and get it out of my system, or do a play or two and get it out of my system.”
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Instead, Eagan was cast in the lead role in “Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol,” a gift that opened a new stage of her life.
Next came “Les Miserables” on Broadway in 1987, where she played Young Cosette and Young Eponine, and became the first girl to understudy the young male role of Gavroche.
“I had a lot of luck very quickly, partly because I wasn’t overly trained and I had some natural ability,” she said.
The industry noticed. Eagan remains the youngest female to win a Tony Award, capturing best featured actress honors at age 11 for her star turn as Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden” musical, opposite Mandy Patinkin as her uncle.
The full force of that achievement took a while to sink in.
“I didn’t realize it right away,” Eagan said. “Certainly, people around me were making a big fuss, but I don’t think the magnitude of it hit me. I had a sort of complicated relationship with it for many years.
“My mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months after I won, and she passed away about a year and a half after that. That relationship with that part of my life — and for many years — was fraught and difficult. In a lot of ways, I felt kind of resentful. It took many years — many, many years — for me to come to terms with it and be OK with it.
“Life doesn’t go in a straight line, and it takes a long time to learn that,” she said, “because I didn’t have that ‘normal’ career trajectory of success, success, success, success. Instead, I had a bunch of success, then many years of struggle. It’s given me an interesting perspective and an interesting relationship to success and to having won. Time put things into perspective for me. It took me many years to feel an uncomplicated gratitude. I did finally get to, thank goodness, (with) a lot of therapy.
“It’s been an interesting road.”
That road has been full of detours. Eagan quit the business at the end of 2007, when she was living in Los Angeles. She went back to college and got a “civilian” job. Her friends kept asking her to perform, and after three and a half years, she relented.
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“I’m not even sure I can tell you what changed. I just know that for some reason, when friends were asking me to perform at little cabarets or whatever, I stopped saying ‘no.’ Maybe it’s because I thought I had nothing to lose. I have nothing riding on it. It can just be a fun time; the pressure’s so low. So I started doing that, and I rediscovered a joy for it that had been missing for many years.
“Then I discovered that there were strengths and talents that I had, that I had no idea I had. I think I just needed the time off. I needed to come into my own and prove to myself that I could do it — that I wasn’t just some anomaly.”
She’s proven that over and over again, appearing in off-Broadway and in regional productions on the East Coast and in southern California, with roles in “Wit,” “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” “Still Daisy After All These Years,” “The Wild Party” and “A View from the Bridge.” She’s made several movies, including “Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding” and “Losing Isaiah,” and has been a guest star on a wide range of television shows, from “Girls” and “The Mentalist” to “Without a Trace,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Numb3rs.”
Those years of finding herself created common ground with her “Humans” character, Brigid. She’s a bartender and aspiring musician in her 20s who invites her family for Thanksgiving dinner at the rundown Manhattan apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Richard. On the guest list are her staunchly Catholic parents; her older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer who has just broken up with her girlfriend; and her father’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The dinner features side-dishes of economics, aging and illness.
Eagan describes the show as “very relatable.”
“No matter where you are in your life, there’s something you can find to cling onto and relate to,” she said. “It’s funny and real and honest. The playwright (Stephen Karam) was in his early 30s when wrote it. The way he was able to seemingly understand three different generations’ worth of perspectives is really remarkable to witness.”
Eagan likes her character’s “major capacity for love and compassion.”
“I like that she is talented and is pursuing her talent, despite some pretty big setbacks. I like how hard she tries. She has a dogged determination that is admirable, and a fierce loyalty and love about her that is unshakable.”
Being in her 20s, Brigid is “at that stage where she thinks that she knows everything and nobody else really knows anything,” Eagan said. “When I was her age, I was a lot like Brigid in that way. I knew everything.
“We feel things in a very big way that sometimes gets away from us. There are a couple moments in the play where Brigid catches herself being a way doesn’t want to be. We’re both trying to be better always.”
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Eagan also has had what she calls “survival jobs.” Unlike Brigid, she’s never waited tables or been a bartender, citing a lack of patience for those jobs. She did, however, make phone calls on behalf of nonprofits, and got fired from her job as a customer service rep for a psychic hotline.
These days, she enjoys coaching acting and auditioning techniques for young actors. “I have a perspective that a lot of teachers don’t, having been a successful child actor.” She’s also a writer, knee-deep in several projects, including a script.
And just as she has embraced the human aspects of Brigid, audiences and critics have embraced “The Humans,” which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Loyalty and love are major themes in this play,” Eagan said. “This family, over the course of this evening, goes through a lot together. It’s something not every family would necessarily come back from. This family is not only going to come back from this evening, but come back stronger in a way. It’s about underlying anxieties about moving forward in life and facing things that are scary. ...
“One thing that makes this play so beautiful is that it’s never heavy-handed and does not hit you over the head with any life lessons,” she said. “You come away with a sense of hope.
“It definitely is a play that makes you think.”
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IF YOU GO
l What: “The Humans”
l Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.
l When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 7; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 8
l Tickets: $35 to $112.50, Civic Center Box Office, (515) 246-2300 or Desmoinesperformingarts.org/events/the-humans/
l Show website: Thehumansonbroadway.com