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Bashir Lazhar
by Evelyne De La Cheneliere
English Translation by Morwyn Brebner

Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 30, 2015

J. Samuel Davis Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater, Bashir Lazhar is a (mostly) one-man show and an intensely personal play. It covers so many issues in such a relatively short time, with a compelling blend of emotion and simplicity.  At its heart, though, is a brilliant performance by a remarkable St. Louis actor.

When we first meet Bashir Lazhar (J. Samuel Davis), he’s practicing introductions for his job as a substitute teacher in a Montreal school.  He’s new to this school and this country, and he’s nervous and eager to make a good impression.  Through the course of the play’s non-linear presentation, we alternate between scenes of Lazhar getting acclimated to teaching his class, and scenes from earlier in his life. We learn about his past in Algeria, and why he fled to Canada as a refugee, as well as how he came to accept the substiute teaching position, and eventually, why that job was vacant in the first place. We get to see Lazhar the man as well as Lazhar the teacher, whose life experiences profoundly influence his highly personal teaching style.  Eventually, we see conflict build both in his job and in his living situation, and he struggles to maintain both his vocation and his residency in Canada.  Without giving too much away, I can say it’s a story that’s at turns heartwarming and heartbreaking.

The key element of this finely scripted and expertly directed production is the amiable and affecting performance of Davis as Lazhar.  It’s a rich, multi-layered performance that conveys both warmth and depth.  We see the eager to please Lazhar pouring himself into his job, and his devotion to his students as well as (in the flashback scenes) his family in Algeria.  Davis has the energy, presence and charisma, as well as the emotional depth to bring this role to life in a profoundly compelling way.  He takes us on Lazhar’s journey with him, and there’s not a dull moment or a false note in this superb performance.  Aliya Taliaferro is also excellent in a small role as a schoolgirl who appears in one scene (a role that will also be played by Eden Harris and Avery Smith in subsequent weeks’s performances).

Technically, the play is simply presented but extremely effective. Cristie Johnson’s set is appropriately evocative of a classroom and hallway in the school, and there’s a striking use of lighting, designed by Steve Carmichael.  All of the technical elements–including Claudia Horn’s props and Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes–work together to achieve the proper atmosphere for both the school setting and support Davis’s excellent work as Lazhar.

This play is intensely moving, managing to be at turns funny, hopeful, and intensely sad at different moments in the production. The ultimate result is a play that’s sure to stir both the thoughts and the emotions of its audience.  It’s an educational play in the best sense of the word, illuminating the issue of the plight of refugees as well as providing insights into the nature of education and what makes a good teacher.  All of these elements are more than ably conveyed in the truly excellent performance of J. Samuel Davis.  This is a tour de force not to be missed.

 

J. Samuel Davis Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

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