It was shortly after moving to Seattle from Illinois that the Washington, D.C. native realized her calling on the stage; a role in a junior high school production of Pinocchio eventually led her to become involved with the local community theater scene. Though Adams would initially enroll in Seattle's Cornish Institute as a political science major, the call of the stage proved too much to resist and she eventually packed her bags and opted to follow the bright beacon of the Broadway lights. Once she was in New York, Adams studied at Juilliard under the tutelage of Bill Kahn, later appearing in a Playwrights Horizons production of The Nice and the Nasty before landing her first Broadway role as the virginal Dierdre in Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet. Moonlighting as a preschool teacher as a means to maintain her sanity during her downtime between roles, Adams set her sights on the screen after making her debut in the 1985 comedy Bombs Away! -- eventually realizing that if she was going to make it in film she would have to make the move to Los Angeles. In the early years of her Hollywood career, Adams got little chance to truly light up the screen since her roles were mainly of the supporting variety, but parts in such widely seen releases as Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Father of the Bride II, and Kansas City did help to build her resumé and increase her exposure.
A Tony-winning role in the 1994 production of An Inspector Calls also served to gain Adams some respect on-stage, and in 1998, she finally got her big break onscreen thanks to her endearing performance as plain Jane, sad sack Joy Jordan in Happiness. Though it was obvious to all who saw the film that Adams certainly had the talent to carry a film, Hollywood still relegated her to supporting roles in Songcatcher, Wonder Boys, and Orange County. If fans had wondered where Adams disappeared to following her small but memorable performance in Orange County, their questions were answered when she appeared in a small capacity in director Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Adams would remain active over the next several years, appearing most notably in movies like The Brave One, and on TV series like Hung.