Three Columbus residents recalled their reaction — beyond shock and grief for the victim — to the 1998 beating, torture and eventual death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student tied to a fence and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming.

All three — Jill Tasker, John Pickett and Sondra Bolte — have a key role in the Ensemble Theatre Columbus’ and Pride Alliance Columbus’ presentation of the play, “The Laramie Project,” Thursday through Sunday in Columbus.

The production focuses on Laramie residents’ wide-ranging thoughts and reactions to Shepard’s death via more than 200 interviews conducted by the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project.

“We really did feel that now was the time to present this because of the current national climate, and because of the recent empowerment of hate groups — and to remind people of the face of hate,” director Tasker said.

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A Welcoming Community grant from the Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County has made the presentations possible.

“The heinousness of this crime is such that all you need to do (in this play) is have the bare mention of it, and you’ve done it justice,” said cast member Tim Staggs who, like others, is playing multiple characters as the show was designed.

Producer Pickett, a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming, attended the University of Wyoming years ago.

“I didn’t want to see the people (of my home state) turned into rednecks,” Pickett said of his initial fears when the show was written and presented in 2000. “But it’s really about what happens to a community such as a Laramie or Columbus when a horrible thing happens and the media descends.”

The production follows Shepard’s story from the initial news of the crime to his death six days later, and the trial of the two men eventually sent to prison for two consecutive life terms.

Actresses such as Sloane Kirsch said she generally considers Columbus a conservative city.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be a part of something like this here in Columbus,” she said, adding that she is especially proud that one of her characters is a young lesbian woman like her.

Based on interview transcripts with Laramie residents, play creator Moises Kaufman asked a simple question: “Is theater a medium that can contribute to the national dialogue on current events?”

Pickett, Tasker and Bolte, one of the play’s narrators and the stage manager, all say yes. The creator also has said that the production is one of “great sadness … and perhaps most importantly, great revelations about our nation, about our ideas, about ourselves.”

“This play is really important to me,” said Bolte, a 2008 winner of the Columbus Human Rights Commission’s William R. Laws Award. “I remember so clearly when it hit the news, and feeling that it was a clear threat to anyone who was gay.

“It shook a lot of people — gay people, straight people — to the core.”

It spurred her to come out publicly as gay.

Yet, the play includes characters who paint Laramie literally as a live-and-let-live town. And its artistic ending leaves ample room for hope, for a national softening of hearts and a hardening of righteous resolve toward unity and brotherly love.

However, the presentation built on people’s straightforward answers to an interviewer’s questions purposely seems to veer from easily filling in all the blanks for those perplexed over such a horrific event. The producer understands that approach.

“I think that good theater always should leave people walking out afterward and asking questions,” Pickett said.

A project of perspective

What: Ensemble Theatre Columbus and Pride Alliance Columbus will present a play, “The Laramie Project.” A Welcoming Community grant from the Heritage Fund: the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, as part of Exhibit Columbus, is making the production possible.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: A pop-up 60-seat theater at 315 Washington St., Columbus.

Tickets: $20 per person, available at laramieprojectcolumbus.eventbrite.com or Baker’s Fine Gifts & Accessories, 433 Washington St.

Focus: Reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The murder was denounced as a hate crime and brought attention to the lack of hate-crime laws in various states, including Wyoming. Due to coarse language and descriptions of a hate crime, the play is intended for mature audiences.

Cast: Victoria Glick, Jenny Heichelbech, Sloane Kirsch, Allison Lindhorst Kunkler, Sam Baker, Pete Law, Tim Staggs and Doug Stender. Each cast member is portraying multiple, real-life characters of the people of Laramie, Wyoming. Jill Tasker is director and John Pickett is the producer. Four narrators, a different one for each performance: Sondra Bolte, Tim Green, Richard McCoy and Brian Walters.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.