At first glance at the spectacular set of the stage drama Bashir Lazhar, it looks like a bomb has gone off in the classroom of a French-langauge school in Montreal.
For its Grade 6 students, their safe haven of learning has been blown sky-high by the suicide of their beloved female teacher, found hanging in their classroom. The deceased is not the title character but it's her substitute, a man who reads about the school tragedy and appears unannounced in the principal's office offering to take over the traumatized class.
That sets the scene for Evelyne de la Chenelière's deceptively simple but deeply affecting Bashir Lazhar, Theatre Projects Manitoba's season-ender that opened Thursday night at the Rachel Browne Theatre. You can't get much more simple than a one-act monologue given an exceptional, understated performance by Vancouver actor David Adams, who carries on one-sided conversations with many characters that the audience must create with their imagination. Adams deftly brings out the generous spirit of this man and his essential dignity.
The courtly replacement teacher is from Algeria, where he says he taught for 17 years. From the outset, the new Canadian struggles to fit in. While in the classroom, he is caring but firmly old-school -- he makes the students line up their desks in rows and chooses the work of some unknown named Balzac to use for dictation. Outside, he is constantly misunderstood, which raises bad feelings and suspicion that he is an Arab who doesn't respect women.
In flashbacks to which director Ann Hodges brings a welcome clarity, we learn Lazhar was a father of three whose life was shattered in Algeria and is now applying for political refugee status in his adopted country. Designer Joan Murphy Kakoske's desk-strewn setting morphs into a reflection of Lazhar's turbulent emotional state in which everything is in disarray.
Despite his hidden wounds, Lazhar's love of children draws him to help these bewildered kids. But he is instructed by the principal that he should be hands-off and leave the healing to the grief counsellor who visits the class for 30 minutes a week. His approach, born of his suffering in Algeria, is to get such pain out in the open and shout about it no matter how incoherent or stupid the response. He coaxes his charges to face their teacher's death head-on by assigning them to write an essay on violence at school in the hope of giving voice to their pent-up emotions.
One of his students, Alice, writes impressively about her feelings, ripping off the cone of silence installed by so-called experts over the situation. Lazhar is ecstatic about Alice's essay and goes to the principal with the proposition of sending copies to all his students' parents. He is forbidden to do so and is ordered to concentrate on classroom curriculum. Lazhar is adamant that the kids should also learn life lessons in the classroom since life is full of adversity.
But Lazhar is only a substitute filling in for something lost and will be replaced. He is also a substitute Canadian desperately wanting to become a real one. To do it he must convince a judge of his worthiness, an outrage to someone who has lost everything he cherishes.
Bashir Lazhar, which was the basis for the much different Oscar-nominated film Monsieur Lazhar, concludes with a quiet, touching catharsis that stands in opposition to the chaotic state of his classroom. The teacher is joined on stage with his star student, Alice, played by Alanna Essenburg, to conclude their mutual healing. The Quebec playwright clearly takes sides when the troubling question is asked: How do you teach children without touching them?
This play stays with you like that special teacher you never forget.
Theatre Projects Manitoba
To March 24 at Rachel Browne Theatre
Tickets: $25 at 204-989-2400
Four and a half stars out of five