Review: “Bashir Lazhar” Gets a Standing Ovation From Its Audience at Barrington Stage, But Has Flaws [Berkshire on Stage]

Juri Henley-Cohn as Bashir Lazhar Photo by Scott Barrow
Juri Henley-Cohn as Bashir Lazhar (photo by Scott Barrow)

Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Larry Murray: Bashir Lazhar is the work of Évelyne de la Chenelière, a Canadian actress who has appeared in nine films and written half a dozen plays which have been popular in French-speaking Quebec. There cultural differences are a major subset of everyday life. Her play, Bashir Lazhar, started as a monologue and has its head in these intellectual differences, even while its heart is in the human condition. Lazhar, a schoolteacher, finds himself in trouble with the school authorities for unorthodox teaching methods, even though they are born of a good heart and more helpful to the students than official policies.

The premise of the play is that a teacher has committed suicide in her own classroom, a horror the children discover returning from recess. A substitute teacher is hired to take her place, and is expected to help them cope with their loss by pretending everything is normal. Lazhar, the replacement, has suffered his own losses. The subtext is that both he and the children are dealing with grieving. He is expected to keep the focus on the positive, even as the morbid realities keep poking through – sometimes in a student’s essay, sometimes in a flashback.

How did the play strike you, Gail? Do you think it deserved the standing ovation it received?

Gail M.Burns: I thought Juri Henley-Cohn deserved it, but not the play. Your second paragraph above gives the bare-bones synopsis that I wish I had had before I entered the theatre. I had read all of the pre-opening publicity, including an interesting interview with Henley-Cohn in which he spoke insightfully about his character but still didn’t give me the key information I needed to unlock this play. Perhaps people who had seen the 2011 film “Monsieur Lazhar” had a better leg-up than I did, but still you shouldn’t have to crib to enjoy a play. The playwright and the director should provide you with everything you need.

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