"The Laramie Project" approaches a horrific hate crime by examining the many people who lived in the very ordinary town in which it happened. At Civics Theatre514, this at times excruciatingly painful, at times surprisingly funny play, is always profoundly moving under the deft direction of Williams Sanders and Rae Labadie. "The Laramie Project" is at Civics Theatre 514, 514 N. 19th St., Allentown through through Sept. 24.

The play centers around the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.

Moisés Kaufman, (Tim Brown,) and members of his New York-based Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to try to learn why such brutality happened in this small town and to determine "how a community writes its own history." "The Laramie Project" is what grew from conversations that happened during six visits in 18 months and the groups interviews with residents are powerfully recreated on stage. Laramie Project by Bill Basta

The horror surrounding Shepards murder is balanced by the humor layered into nearly every Laramie resident encountered in the play. The towns characters are fascinatingly complex and run the gamut from judgmental and hateful to compassionate and selfless. The ensemble cast of 11 bring more than 60 characters vividly to life and give each one a believable depth and agency.

The cast includes Nicole Anderson, Tim Brown, Robert Coll, Todd Croslis, Becky Engborg, Bowie Green, Pat Kelly, Josh Labadie-Gulotta, Marley Mathias, Jake Walbert and Rachel Van Dyke-Stipick.

Through the interviews, the play takes the audience through the hours leading up to the murder, the investigation, the vigils, Matts funeral and the trials of the two young men who committed the crime.

The cast, all dressed in black, creates a stark tableau on the stage set simply with a table and chairs. The table and chairs are moved around, at one point a line of chairs chillingly standing in for the fence to which Matt was tied. Racks on clothing on the sides let the performers effectively change character by donning a knit cap, a jacket or a priests collar. The lighting by Ellen Schmoyer adds to a somber effect.

Although all characters were well done, several stood out.

Croslis plays Jedadiah Schultz, a 19-year-old acting student who goes against his parents to perform a scene from "Angels in America;" and Aaron Kriefels, the bicyclist who found Matt tied to the fence and wonders why he was brought to that place at that time.

Mathias plays the emergency room doctor who is horrified at the extent of Matts injuries and ponders the strange irony that she treated both Matt and one of his assailants the same night.

Kelly is Matts kind driver and friend Doc OConnor who fondly recalls the young man; and Dennis Shepard, Matts heartbroken father who spares his sons murderers from death penalty.

Labadie-Gulotta is bartender Matt Galloway, who observed Matt and his assailants the night of the attack and wonders if he could have prevented it, by intervening; and Jonas Slonaker, an openly gay resident of Laramie who is frustrated by the lack of any anti-discrimination legislation.

Brown is the compassionate hospital CEO Rulon Stacey who lets his tears flow and Father Roger Schmidt, a Catholic priest who held a vigil for Matt and sees how poisonous homophobia is.

Green is Matts close friend and lesbian activist Romaine Patterson, who organizes a group of "angels" to block the anti-gay rantings of Fred Phelps (Walbert) of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, at Matts funeral.

Engborg is senior Marge Murray, a tough talking woman who is not shy about her opinions and finds herself hilarious; and Catherine Connolly, a professor at the University of Wyoming who is the first 'out' lesbian faculty member.

Rachel Van Dyke-Stipick is Reggie Fluty, a police officer who aided a blood-covered Matt and finds she has been exposed to HIV; and Rebecca Hilliker, the supportive head of the theater department at the University of Wyoming.

"The Laramie Project" may be difficult to watch at times, but the story it tells is one we all need to hear and think about.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20-23; and 2 p.m. Sept. 17 and 24.

Tickets are $39 for adults; $34 for seniors and students; and $17 for children age 13 and younger.

For information, call 610-432-8943 or go to civictheatre.com/.

photo by Bill Basta