It’s easy to see why Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Cheneliere’s “Bashir Lazhar” has been one of the most popular and most widely staged recent works in Canada, based on its stunning and moving American premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., where it will play through June 8.
Although it was made into a French-language Canadian film (“Monsieur Lazhar”) that was nominated for an Academy Award, in its original 80-minute, one act, one person version remains an example of the power of theater to thrill the mind and grab the emotions. With the remarkable Juri Henley-Cohn as the title character and under Shakina Nayfack’s precise direction, “Bashir Lazhar” emerges as a touching work with an impact that lingers long after the final blackout.
In an English translation by Morwyn Brebner, the play recounts Bashir’s story as an Algerian refugee in Montreal, where he exploits a tragic incident to become a substitute teacher to a class of students who were witness to the incident. After a few unfortunate starts, it becomes clear that Bashir, who was also a teacher back in Algeria, has a deep personal commitment to teaching and an even more intense connection to students and young people in general.
As we learn by the end of the play, he sees his role as a teacher as playing a crucial role in humanity’s future, comparing it to a teacher’s ability to erase a blackboard and start over with a clean slate. Because of certain incidents in his own life in Algeria, which are gradually revealed over the course of the play, he sees each new generation of children as a possibility to start over with a clean slate and ultimately change humanity’s propensity to bullying, violence and despair. Without giving away too much about this absorbing work, let’s just say that his enthusiasm and some cultural misunderstandings will cause him some complications as he strives to fulfill what he perceives as his mission at his new school.
Henley-Cohn is absolutely mesmerizing as Lazhar (called “Monsieur Lazhar” in the film of the same name), capturing the accent seemingly perfectly throughout while speaking in the tentative voice of an individual new to a culture and a curriculum. He ably captures the semi-awkward movements of a man deferring to the authority of a new superior (and coming from Algeria, it could be the first time he has a woman as a boss), while trying to present a confidence and assuredness to his class.
His progress as a teacher, in which he genuinely connects with and inspires some of this students, is interspersed with short scenes and glimpses of scenes that reveal key moments in Lazhar’s personal life in Algeria and upon his initial arrival in Canada. Henley-Cohn is both impassioned and tragic during a scene recounting Lazhar’s request for political refugee status in Canada, a scene that reveals the emotional toll that his journey has exacted.
One of the most interesting and, for the creative team, challenging things about “Bashir Lazhar” is that as written by de la Cheneliere, it is essentially an extended monologue with virtually no stage directions, just a note or two as to whom Bashir may be addressing. As a result, it was necessary for director Nayfack and Henley-Cohn, along with the members of the design team, to develop their own staging and scenic concept that would not only keep the work from being static but visually interesting and clear as well.
Brett J. Banakis has provided a set that resembles a school room, with a teacher’s desk and a few chairs, a blackboard, a student’s desk and some windows, but thanks to Robert Brown’s adroit lighting and the realignment of a few pieces of furniture, it can be converted to a principal’s office, a teacher’s lounge and even an immigration hearing room. Nayfack manages to make de la Cheneliere’s stream of consciousness presentation easy to follow, with Henley-Cohn’s changing facial expressions and posture quickly communicating the type of situation.
Anthony Mattana has composed a stirring, irresistible score for the production that establishes the mood upon entrance into the Barrington Stage’s St. Germain Stage in the Sydell and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center and provides a strong foundation for the various emotions that are prompted by the tale.
This strong, moving production is an impressive way to open the season at Barrington Stage. It reminds us that summer theater can be intelligent, suggestive and dynamic. It is one of the most eloquent works I have encountered in recent months and this production does the play proud.
For information and tickets, call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413.236.8888 (or toll-free at 855-TIX-2BSC) or visit the Barrington Stage website at www.barringtonstageco.org. The Blatt Center is located at 26 Linden Street in downtown Pittsfield.