The time is 1997/1998 and the place Montreal, Canada. Bashir nervously enters a classroom which holds a desk, chair, chalkboard and clock. He tries out a number of introductions for students. Here are two samples: "Hello, my name is Bashir Lazhar. I am substituting for your teacher, Martine Lachance who, as you have been told, will be absent from now on." Later, "Hello. I am a professionally certified substitute teacher and they have asked me to replace your teacher Martine Lachance." Bashir delivers these and many more versions with a variety of inflections, dispositions and poses. All the while he addresses the theater audience as if they are those young people who are meeting their new teacher for the very first time.
The play moves backward and forward in time. The device heightens interest but can become confusing. Bashir immigrated from Algeria but arrives having experienced tragic events in his own life involving his wife and children. He references them with compassion and love and, now, he faces students who are dealing with a horrific event involving the former teacher, Martine. Ultimately, Alice, a student who treasures Bashir, must bid him adieu as he, too, is ultimately replaced. He is asked to leave the school because parents have discovered something of Bashir's past. French-Algeria was experiencing civil war and the play's protagonist has left the country. This is surely political.
The production alludes to Bashir's interview and interrogation regarding the position he has taken at the school. So, too, we later learn that his wife was a teacher and that he ran a café. He explains that he abandoned neither his country nor his family. He has come to Canada for asylum.
A good and caring person, he wants his students to be courageous, imaginative, expressive and disciplined. He assigns, as a topic, violence as it relates to school. His hope is that ideas will be boldly exchanged and that people will listen.
Bashir desperately, for many reasons, wants and needs to stay at the school. When it becomes obvious that he will not be allowed to do so, he, quite systematically, returns his classroom to physical order by tidying up, erasing all of what he has written on the board, returning the wooden desk to its original position, and collecting his few belongings in a cardboard box. Long before, the audience has become fully involved. The play ends, everyone applauds and walks away from the performance, but not from its implications.
This presentation thankfully coaxes a tour de force by Henley-Cohn, who has been precisely directed by Shakina Nayfack. The director wisely varies pacing. Bashir Lazhar was written before the film Monsieur Lazhar was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 as Best Foreign Language Film. The movie included more than twenty in its cast and the play just one individual. It is impossible not to feel the presence of students and others in the room as one watches the galvanic, physical Henley-Cohn embody Bashir.
The script provides opportunity to focus upon: immigration, politics, human interaction, teacher/student inter-relationship, motivational qualities, need for love and respect ... much, much more. It does not insist that a viewer choose a single perspective as his priority. If I were to see the production once again, my emphasis might very well shift.
Henley-Cohn is masterful. An actor who has performed in New York and Los Angeles on small and large screen as well as on stage, his is an emotional and truly warm performance. He takes on Bashir's struggle and pain. To those sitting close by, this is nothing short of stirring and sustaining.
Bashir Lazhar continues at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through June 8th. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
- Fred Sokol