The Mirabal Sisters’ Heroic Legacy in Prime Stage’s “In the Time of the Butterflies”

By Eva Phillips

There is a story a within a story happening in In the Time of the Butterflies, the ink bleeding through the cover of one story into the tremulously turned pages of the other. Even still, nestled within the pages of that story, there are even more stories etched furiously, desirously, fearfully, spiritedly, on the furtive pages of the diaries of the Mirabal sisters—Patria, Maria Teresa, Minerva, and Dede. The chorus of resilient narratives, voices and perspectives that encompass time and space weave deftly together to paint the at once inspiring and devastating story of women relentlessly rallying against the ruthless grasp of tyranny.

Prime Stage’s latest production brings the phenomenally well-received, brilliantly constructed 1994 novel of the same name by Julia Alvarez to life by way of the breathtaking script-adaptation by Obie Award Winner Caridad Svich. The play centers around the recounting of the lives—and crucially, the words and journal/diary entries—of the Mirabal sisters who live and love in the Dominican Republican in the growing shadow of the insidiously oppressive regime of Trujillo (Enrique Bazan) who exerted dominance through and beyond his tyrannical regime that lasted until his assassination in 1961. Each memory and each vignette is woven together and articulated by the adult Dede (Susana Garcia-Barragan) to an American Woman with Dominican heritage (Lydia Gibson) who is meeting with Dede in an attempt to write a story about the Mirabal sisters. The play opens with a scene of ominous beauty and capriciousness: the four sisters leap around their lush, pre-lapsarian garden—a place which at once is their whole world, and shields them from the brutality of the world around them—marveling at the splendor of the butterflies that fly around them, trying to literally and figuratively capture their beauty.

The opening scene functions not only as a charming introduction to each of the sister’s unique personalities and how they interact as a unit, but also provides us the stark juxtaposition of beauty, resilience, and freedom that coexists in and often in spite of a harsh, condemning world. From the first few moments of the play, the four wildly gifted women embodying the legendary sisters—Evelyn Hernandez as Minerva; Krystal Rivera as Patria; Frances Tirado as Mate (Maria Teresa); and Vanessa Vivas as Dede—establish their respective roles in such a way that we can easily grasp the distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies of each woman, allowing us to become instantly, and sorrowfully, attached to and entranced by them. Much of this successful attachment and fondness (which, to be clear, only grows throughout the ensuing action of the play) must be attributed to the effortlessly effervescent performances of each of the actresses, and their seamless ability to relate to and draw energy from one another. As the younger version of Dede, the only surviving sister and the woman who is responsible for conveying the Mirabal story, Vivas exacts the perfect mixture of stoic and lovingly concerned, and expertly subdues herself in certain moments in such a way that announces that she is a seer of all who will serve as prophet in a way that requires poise and reticence. Krystal Rivera makes Patria her own, delivering comic-relief through Patria’s obsessive Christian uprightness just as adeptly and impactfully as she gives us heartbreaking, intimate grief and fear. In her channeling of Mate, Frances Tirado possesses all the fierce spunk and earnest vulnerability that makes the character particularly endearing and devastating to watch. And finally, Evelyn Hernandez is quite frankly transcendent as Minerva, and her inimitable nuanced forcefulness is utterly captivating and more than fills the tall order of playing the sister who is the focal point for Trujillo’s initial fixation with the sisters. I have to imagine that having Minerva’s daughter, as well as philologist and scholar, Minou Tavarez Mirabal in the audience must have imbued Hernandez with a sort of indomitable fire.

Director Ricardo Vila-Roger is masterful in his construction of the narrative, ensuring that the framing device of the play—Older Dede telling the story of her sisters and her younger self, who share their own stories and diaries within that meta narrative—is organic, relatable, and easy to track. Both the literal movements of actors and sets, and the metaphoric movements of time and stories are done simply and effectively. Although Victor M. Aponte importantly and wonderfully plays Lio, Minerva’s fated revolutionist lover, he is at his best playing the DJ that expressively and dynamically gives interstitial narration as a radio announcer giving the pulse on the cultural, political, and plot developments in such a way that makes the complex narrative layering all the more successful.

The legacy of the Mirabal sisters and their unfettered, selfless fight for justice, truth and liberation in the face of brutal dictatorship is one that should be eternally upheld. But to see their story so lyrically brought to life in a way that allows the humanness of the women and the enormity of their legacy harmoniously coexist in an era where we routinely see gradual infringements on justice grow more egregious is an experience that is haunting and utterly necessary. In the Time of the Butterflies is not just an exquisitely-acted, powerful piece of theatre; it is a poignantly-crafted, mandatory emotional, political experience that should galvanize us to stand for ourselves and our loved ones against the threat tyranny in its many wretched forms.

In the Time of the Butterflies runs through March 17 at New Hazlett Theatre. For tickets and other information, click here. 

Eva Phillips is celebrating her third year in Pittsburgh, third year writing for PGH in the Round, and twenty-seventh year not getting murdered (shockingly, despite all odds). She relocated to the brittle Steel City from Virginia to pursue her Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies at CMU (with a concentration in film theory and film criticism, and intersections with feminism and gender), and has spent the past few years in Pittsburgh cultivating her writing career, developing her blog https://www.tuesgayswithmorrie69.net/, raising two show cats, and widening her perspectives on the ever-evolving spectrum of theatre. She only has one Les Miserables tattoo out of her 32 tattoos, and she finds that morally reprehensible.

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