When Jo Morello started expressing an interest in the life of esteemed 20th-century writer Eugene O'Neill, her husband, a fellow playwright, cautioned her.
"He warned me, 'If you go into the world of O'Neill, you'll never come out," Morello says.
O'Neill holds numerous distinctions, including the Pulitzer Prize for drama four times and the United States' only playwright to win the Nobel Prize for literature. It was all for a body of work, including The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, that was largely autobiographical.
So it's interesting, Morello says, that not a lot of people know much about his life.
Morello, who lives in University Park, Fla., set out to learn more. She became the editor of the Eugene O'Neill Society Newsletter and wrote about O'Neill for American Theatre magazine. But the biggest manifestation of her interest is E.G.O.: The Passions of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, her play about the writer and his second and third wives. It recently won the Kentucky Women Writers Conference playwriting competition. Its world-premiere production will be on the next two weekends by Balagula Theatre in downtown Lexington.
"For the person who has read or seen a couple O'Neill plays or seen a movie adaptation, what Jo's play does is it clarifies that the O'Neill we think we know today wouldn't have become that person without Agnes and Carlotta," director Kathi E.B. Ellis says, referring to O'Neill's wives. "It makes the case for times that were wonderful and passionate and times that were co-dependent and dysfunctional."
Morello said the women served distinctly different roles in O'Neill's life.
"Agnes helped Eugene with his plays," she says. "When they met, he was a raving drunk, and she kept him together and supported him in so many ways, including financially."
And three of the four plays for which he won Pulitzers — Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie and Strange Interlude — were written while he was married to Agnes. The couple were part of a young playwriting crowd in New York's Greenwich Village and worked with the Provincetown Players in the seaside Massachusetts artists community.
Carlotta was a different story.
"She was his guardian, and she barred the door," Ellis says.
Morello says Carlotta gave up her fledgling acting career for O'Neill and was a key to keeping his work in front of the public after his death, particularly by having Circle in the Square Theatre perform Long Day's Journey Into Night, his fourth Pulitzer winner, and by many measures, O'Neill's masterpiece.
"She very much made the man back into a revered playwright," Morello says. "And then, he became this mythic figure."
Morello's play covers 36 years and is set across the United States and Europe. When she read it, Ellis knew it was bigger than Balagula's usual stage at Natasha's Bistro & Bar. Fortunately, the theater already was looking at taking the show a couple of blocks down the street and producing it at the Downtown Arts Center.
"At the Downtown Arts Center, we are able to give an epic telling of an epic story in a great O'Neill style," says Ellis, a Louisville-based director, whose previous work at Balagula includes the 2011 production of A Steady Rain and Topdog/Underdog earlier this year.
That's in the service of a play that comes from a place of devotion to its subject.
"As we've been working on the script and the research, it is clear where Jo has gone into original documents and scholarship in detail," Ellis says.
So what of the prophecy of Morello's husband, Jack Gilhooley, who himself had a play, Connemara Dreaming, premiered by Actors Guild of Lexington in 1991?
Morello laughs and says, "I guess I've never come out."
IF YOU GO
'E.G.O.: The Passions of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill'
What: World premiere production of Jo Morello's play, which won the Kentucky Women Writers Conference playwriting competition.
When: 7:30 Sept. 13, 14, 19-21; and 2 p.m. Sept. 15, 22.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $20 adult, $15 students, $12 each for groups of 10 or more. Available at (859) 225-0370 or Balagula.com.
Kentucky Women Writers Conference: 35th annual conference hosted by University of Kentucky, with featured guests Bonnie Jo Campbell, Kia Corthron, Ada Limón and more. Sept. 20-22 at various venues. Fees for the conference are $40 to $195, but there are several free events. For a schedule, go to Womenwriters.as.uky.edu.