“In the Time of the Butterflies” successfully interprets a little-known story

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Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” is one of my all-time favorite novels for a number of reasons. It was my first introduction to that historical period in the Dominican Republic. Not only does it tell a story I’d never heard, it’s well-written and vividly rendered. It is the work that inspired me to pursue an honors thesis on Dominican literature. Jewell Theatre Company’s production of Caridad Svich’s adaptation of the play had a lot to live up to in my head. For the most part, I think it did so.

The play tells the story of the Mirabal sisters, Patria (Kyra Little), Minerva (Hannah Fuhlhage), Maria Teresa (Victoria Smith) and Dedé (Sandra Adams and Caroline Seitz). The former three were murdered by members of the Dominican Secret Police in 1960 for their rebellion against the dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (Terrace Wyatt, Jr.). Dedé, who was not in the car with them on the day they were killed, survived. The show covers the lives of the sisters from 1938 to 1960, from the perspective of the survivor, Dedé, in 1994 as she recounts the story to an American writer (Kati Watts) who has come to visit the museum dedicated to the Mirabals.

The part of the narrative dealing with the present-day Dedé is much more fleshed out in the play than it is in the novel. The frame story, dealing with issues of authority and the role of storytelling in social justice, is the most productive section of the show. The power of writing to tell a lasting story after those who lived through it are gone is the show’s overarching message, and Seitz as the older Dedé really drives it home.

The earlier-set portions of the play have some powerful moments, as well. The sisters play off each other well. The opposition between the fiercely revolutionary Minerva and her more reluctant sisters is a strong portion of the play. In one of the play’s more dramatic scenes, Patria, Dedé and Minerva attend a party thrown by Trujillo, where the dictator attempts to violate Minerva. It’s well-done, and the emotion really comes through.

The play’s weakest point is in its use of the Spanish language. The program makes clear the reasons for culturally non-specific casting, and I appreciated what they were trying to do. However, the actors could have done with more practice in their pronunciation of Spanish words. It’s possible that this is just my issue as a Spanish major who knows how these words are supposed to be pronounced, but I think it would have lent to the authenticity of the piece.

Even though the play wasn’t particularly true to the novel in important ways, I didn’t mind the differences. Sometimes, it’s best to think of the movie (or play, as it may be) and the book as separate entities. This is useful here. Each medium has its strong points independent of the other. Overall, the show was a great tribute to the sisters and their history.   

Jewell Theatre Company’s production of “In the Time of the Butterflies” will run March 13 at 7 p.m. and March 14 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Peters Theatre. English and Spanish copies of Julia Alvarez’s novel will be sold in the box office before the performance.

Photo courtesy of PopSugar.

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