In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was severely beaten, robbed and tortured, tied to a fence and abandoned. He died from a traumatic brain injury six days later.

That incident was the basis of “The Laramie Project,” which looks at the reactions of townspeople to the murder. Center Stage Community Theatre opened “The Laramie Project” last night, as part of its 25th anniversary season.

“There was a theater company that came in and started doing interviews with people of the town shortly after the beating,” first-time director Matt Trgovac said. “They came back over 14 months and did over 200 interviews with the people of the town. So the play is comprised of those interviews. These are real people that the actors are portraying onstage. It’s almost like a documentary-style play.”

Eight actors portray more than 60 characters in a series of “moments,” Trgovac said, ranging from Shepard’s friends, law enforcement, Laramie church leaders and university students and professors.

“It’s a very personal show for me,” Trgovac said. “I acted in it in college 10 years ago and the 20th anniversary of the incident was last year.”

The set is sparse. The largest set piece is a representation of the fence that Shepard was tied to. The final scene also depicts the cold October night when Shepard was murdered. Trgovac said the star field is an actual depiction of the sky on that night.

Jayden Rodriguez, a Hoosier artist, painted the piece that served as inspiration for the poster art. The work will be on display in the lobby for the performances. It will be sold in a silent auction with proceeds donated to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

In memory of Shepard, the cast collectively decided to forego a curtain call. Trgovac wants the audience to recognize the capacity for love in their hearts.

“Hate is so much more difficult and requires so much more energy than love,” he said. “What can we do as people to make sure that this type of event doesn’t happen again and that we don’t sink into our tribes that we always go into when there’s an event like this.”

Show times are 7:30 p.m. July 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 and 2:30 p.m. July 14, 21 and 28. Center Stage Community Theater is at 604 W. Powell St., Lebanon.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for senior citizens and students. They may be purchased online at centerstagecommunitytheatre.com or by calling 765-894-5587. The play contains strong language and Trgovac said it is not suitable for children younger than 13. There is also a strobe effect used in the performance.

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