'Bashir Lazhar' at Barrington Stage: Life lessons in a classroom


PITTSFIELD -- Bashir Lazhar, the title character in French-Canadaian playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière's one-actor play, is an Algerian immigrant trying to get a foothold in what holds out to him the promise of a brave new world.

He's a man with a tragic past, the survivor of a horrible event that has left him without his family -- his wife and their three daughters.

When we meet Bashir in the play's generally creditable American premiere production at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage he is nervously preparing for the arrival of his sixth grade class; rehearsing his greeting to them.

This is an awkward time not only for Bashir (played with affecting grace and understanding by Juri Henley-Cohn), a quick hire as a substitute teacher, but also for his students who are making a traumatic adjustment to the permanent absence of their inventive former teacher.

Bashir is not a teacher by trade. In Algeria he ran a cafe. His wife, Fatima, was a teacher and through various flashbacks, we sense through Bashir's loving eyes the marvel she was in the classroom.

Bashir works hard in his determined, passionate way to engage the students, without the practical skills or creativity of the teacher he is replacing. Eventually, he gives his students a project -- write an essay on violence in schools -- that backfires on Bashir when one of his students writes an essay that, in its unadorned simplicity, brings to center stage a traumatic episode that everyone in the school community -- administrators, teachers, students, parents -- would just as soon deny.

The play moves back and forth in time and location as Bashir tries to make sense of a life, his own, that is going awry in a setting that seems to be conspiring against him.

Bashir speaks admiringly of the blackboard which, he says, "makes everything possible because you can erase and start over." Life is not that simple, of course. How Bashir absorbs that tricky lesson shapes Henley-Cohn's finely tuned performance which succeeds in letting us see the world Bashir sees and experiences through his eyes and our imagination. It's an often captivating partnership, jarred by Anthony Mattana's wearing, intrusive theme-and-variations minimalist score.

Near the end, Bashir, partly out of his own struggle to summon courage in the face of profound loss, erupts in a nearly over-the-top exhortation to his students to enjoy life to the fullest as he watches them play outside through the windows of a classroom that has become anything but a sanctuary. For Bashir, starting over is not an option.


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