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In 1960, Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic, confessed to his inner circle: “My only two problems are the church and the Mirabel sisters.”

Patria, Minerva, Maria Teresa, and Dede Mirabel grew up well-to-do in a small town in Salcedo Province. No one would have guessed that the children would become the famed Las Mariposas (“The Butterflies”), fierce, patria o muerte leaders of underground resistance against the man who, on a whim, raped women and murdered dissenters — and once ordered a stiff fine on any male wearing khaki shirts and pants of the same color.

Or that, after Trujillo had three of the sisters assassinated, Dominicans would make pilgrimages to their home, as if to the shrine of saints, to cure various ailments.

It’s an amazing story, beautifully told in Julia Alvarez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies. Through diaries and confessions each of the sisters recounts her experiences first hand. And Dede, “the sister who survived,” tells how she metamorphosed, like a butterfly, from a listener to an “oracle.”

And she wrestles with the tricky contradictions of what she remembers versus the legend her version has etched in granite.

Caridad Svich, graduate of UCSD Theatre’s MFA program and winner of a 2012 Obie Award for lifetime achievement in theater, wrestles with the story as well.

The script is sketchy and talky. The novel moves from 1934 to 1994. It carefully develops all four sisters through the stages of their lives. Each becomes a “butterfly” in a different way: Minerva almost from the get-go, Patria quite late, and Dede not at all. The play, which runs around 100 minutes, touches on motivations, but often leaps three or four years forward. The sisters are further along, and we must accept that changes have taken place, given their new status.

Co-directed by Todd Salovey and Herbert Siguenza, the Rep’s production is strong on poetic theatricality but far less so on the visceral nature of Trujillo’s oppression and the sisters’ courageous responses. It’s “magic realism” with emphasis on the “magic” — and more realism needed.

Ian Wallace’s clay-walled set, bas relief sculptures and useful projections, looks down on the Mirabel’s sheltered garden. Kristin Swift Hayes’ expressive lighting and Michael Roth’s equally expressive music (though the violin competes with some speeches) provide necessary atmospherics.

The five women playing the sisters fill in the blanks with emotionally-charged performances, especially Jacqueline Grace Lopez’s often-vehement Minerva and Catalina Maynard’s beautifully layered Dede, whose feelings conflict when she struggles with myth, reality, and memory.

Herbert Siguenza plays all the male parts: an ice-cold Trujillo has appropriate menace, but his DJ’s comical remarks tend to cartoon, and diminish, the sisters’ plight.

The story is important (when Alvarez interviewed Dede, few outside the Dominican Republic had heard of it). Although the staging can make for a seat-squirmer, the best scenes illustrate the risks the sisters took, and the price they paid.

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