"Glory is a heavy burden, a murdering poison, and to bear it is an art. And to have that art is rare."

-- Oriana Fallaci

The famed Italian journalist had more of that elusive art than most of the world leaders and celebrities she covered. Not only did she have a devastating way with words, but she was as equally fearless in the halls of power as she was in the trenches.

When she died, it has been said, the art of the interview died with her.

Hailed as "a dissecting interviewer of the powerful," Fallaci was a controversial figure whose heroism and fatal flaws are the stars of "Fallaci," a new play by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Oskar Eustis, this tale of Fallaci's last days makes its world premiere at Berkeley Rep on Friday through April 21 before heading to New York's Public Theatre.

Playwright Lawrence Wright is photographed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s rehearsal and administration site on Harrison Street in Berkeley,
Playwright Lawrence Wright is photographed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's rehearsal and administration site on Harrison Street in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, March 1, 2013. (Jane Tyska/Staff) (JANE TYSKA)

Wright is no stranger to complex subject matter. First he penetrated the secret world of al-Qaida in the book "The Looming Tower." Then he exposed the inner workings of the Church of Scientology in the New York Times best-seller "Going Clear." Now the celebrated New Yorker writer is paying homage to the gutsy life and work of this iconoclastic reporter.

"She made journalism look sexy, thrilling and exciting," the Pulitzer-winning reporter says during a recent phone interview. "She had a formidable intelligence, she could plumb the depths of your soul and she could bring world leaders to heel. Her writing was like the tide -- it pulled you in, it was irresistible."


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The daughter of a cabinetmaker in Florence, Fallaci was a study in contradictions, a celebrity reporter turned war correspondent who spent years on the front lines from Vietnam to the Middle East.

She cut a glamorous figure with her high cheekbones, glam eyeliner and the omnipresent cigarette dangling from her mouth, but she was all grit underneath. That unusual blend of style and steel is part of her mystique.

"Her concept of 'truth' is so mutable. She fiercely scavenges for it in interviews even as she manipulates it in her own life. Her contradictory nature, her inconsistencies, are so human and reflect her personal fragility," says Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Rep, where Concetta Tomei ("China Beach") will play the lead role.

"What I love about his play is that he enjoys all the contradictions. He loves everything that is messy about Fallaci's humanity."

No matter the milieu she was covering, Fallaci knew how to hold feet to the fire. She interviewed everyone from Clark Gable and Orson Welles to Henry Kissinger and Fidel Castro, and she never deferred in the face of authority. She was tough and incisive -- even when those qualities fell out of favor.

"Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon," she once said. "I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born."

More than once, she shaped history, changing the course of foreign policy. She never worried about losing access or making enemies. She just called it like she saw it. The Los Angeles Times dubbed her "the journalist to whom virtually no world figure would say no."

"She had a reputation for being a bulldozer, but people still wanted to be interviewed by her," Wright says. "It was a rite of passage, it meant you were a man, that you could take it. When Fallaci wanted to interview you, it meant you had arrived."

Fallaci got her start in journalism delivering newspapers for the resistance, fighting against Benito Mussolini's repressive regime, as a child in World War II Italy. She went on to become a lookout for the resistance.

"It was a courageous thing to do," Wright says, "and she loved that spirit of resistance, fighting the Nazis, knowing that the truth was on her side."

Her tenacity in uncovering the truth never wavered. Danger did not faze her. She was shot three times and left for dead during the student riots before the 1968 Summer Olympics. Still, she put herself in harm's way time and again.

Kissinger described his encounter with Fallaci as the most disastrous conversation he ever had. Not only did he tell her that Vietnam was a "useless war," but he also called himself "the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse." That did not sit well with public opinion.

"An interview is a dance, a seduction. Fallaci knew how to catch people off guard," Wright says. "They often told her things they didn't intend to. She knew how to penetrate the veil they put up."

Like Fallaci, Wright has a reputation for being intrepid. His hard-hitting expose of Scientology has earned him a spot on the celebrity circuit, including a hilarious stint on "The Colbert Report." That boldness serves him well in capturing Fallaci's weaknesses as well as her triumphs.

Fallaci, who died of cancer at the age of 77 in 2006, remains an icon to many, particularly as a woman unafraid to assail the old-boy network. Alas, her legacy is mixed. Toward the end of her life, she drew notoriety for her vitriolic screeds against Islam. Her combative nature, the key to her genius as war correspondent, was also the chink in her armor.

"In the end, she was not fair-minded," Wright says. "In some ways, the play is my way of arguing with her. I admire her immensely, but I can also see her flaws."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage.

'fallaci'

Written by Lawrence Wright, directed by Oskar Eustis

When: Friday-April 21.
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Tickets: $29-$89, 510-647-2949,
www.berkeleyrep.org