This musical flirts with great themes but too often takes the easy way out into sentimentality that does them little justice. Although many of the tunes are catchy (I loved "Ain't it great to be senile?") and do serve a purpose, Like a Fly in Amber takes too much refuge in its lighter moments and doesn't dig deeply enough into the complex themes at its heart.
The contrast between the musical numbers where Iris seems to be imagining her mother's responses and those in which Grace alone takes centre stage is an important one. The latter seem to represent an inner yearning for outward expression that can never quite materialize given the barriers to communication.
Indeed, difficulty in communication is a thread that runs throughout the piece as Iris laments over and over that she doesn't really know her mother.
Like all of us Grace is essentially trapped inside herself and understands her own pain and experiences in a way that no one else could, not even her own daughter. The play makes the additional point, however, that as we grow older, there are fewer people who even want to try to understand or listen, family or otherwise.
Another interesting theme that is hinted at but never quite developed is the ultimate futility in summing up a person's life in words. Grace waxes about her past love and her ruminations on reincarnation while her daughter tries to fit the basic facts into a nice one-pager. We get the impression that Grace was ultimately unknown to her daughter.
Iris implores her mother to tell her "what she wants her to say" at her eulogy. The answer seems to be that it is too late in death for Grace to want anything. In life, the aged Grace simply wants to be acknowledged as a real human presence in a world where the elderly are frequently treated as living burdens. Indeed, the musical seems more comfortable with what Iris wants for herself as she deals with the passing of her mother.
It is said that we cry at funerals not for the deceased but for ourselves, for the sadness we feel at a loss. Like a fly in amber, Grace struggles to be understood in life, increasingly so as she reaches her final years.
By the end, Iris finds comfort in a song that has significance for her. However, for a performance that raises so many deep issues, this seems like an easy way out.
Yet in spite of the somewhat saccharine tone of the production, it does prompt us to ask ourselves hard questions about how we spend the time we have left with our loved ones as they get older.
If you like the themes of this musical, seek out a Japanese film called Tokyo Story (1953) directed by the great Yasujirō Ozu.
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