Considering his recent directorial works include large-cast works like Dangerous Liaisons and Street Scene, Craig Johnson is probably somewhat relieved to only have a quartet of actors for his latest project, Doubt, at Park Square Theatre.
It's not that they haven't had a lot of work to do. "We are really filling the time," he says. "In Doubt, you have to go beat by beat -- what is this character asking and why? Why is there a pause here? Why did they change subjects? Why are you mad now?"
After all, playwright John Patrick Shanley doesn't offer a clear-cut answer to the play's central mystery: What happened between a priest and the first African-American student at a Bronx-area Catholic school? "Other plays are driven more by plot. This is driven by the intimate shading of the characters. What are their secret back stories? They all have something that they are withholding," Johnson says.
Shanley's play is also very lean -- it's a one act that runs less than 90 minutes -- but the text "is so flexible. Every moment can be interpreted in different ways," Johnson says.
Those aspects have made the play a success since its debut and have followed it through multiple versions, including a film and an in-the-works opera that will debut next winter at the Minnesota Opera.
It has also made the show attractive for actors. In this case, Johnson has a talented veteran quartet, led by Linda Kelsey as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and David Mann as Father Brendan Flynn. Anne Sundberg plays the younger Sister James and Regina Marie Williams is the mother of the boy at the center of the accusations. Williams was cast in the same role last year in Ten Thousand Things' production of the show, while Kelsey has also played her part in a prior production.
This experience has helped to guide each actor in their own interpretation of what actually happened. Johnson has also made up his mind about the actual events -- though obviously he isn't about to share them.
"I've asked David and Linda to come up with what exactly happened and what, in the case of David, has happened to the character in the past, where he is on the spectrum from complete innocence to guilt. We did it all separately, so no one else in the cast knows what their answers are," he says.
There is certainly a universal message in that. "We all have secrets. There are things that we have done that we may not want to share in the light," Johnson says. "This has made it a lot of fun to explore and solve a mystery, in the way you might examine a piece of scripture."
The religious side can't be undersold on the play, which is steeped in the culture and broad changes of the early 1960s.
Oh, and don't think this is going to be a dour-fest. "I think there is humor in the play, and that's good. You don't want an intense drama that is completely relentless," Johnson says.
"I'm telling the actors that if people are half as engaged with the characters and have as many questions as we do, we are home free. The play is a one act. Act two is the conversation that happens afterwards," he says.
IF YOU GO
Park Square Theatre 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
Previews through Thursday, opens Friday and runs through May 13.
For tickets and info call 651.291.7005 or visit online