The dialogue in "The Laramie Project" is all real, drawn from interviews that Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project conducted with the people of Laramie, Wyo. The subject is the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, a case that drew unwanted national attention to Laramie in 1998. And the things the local people say about it are sometimes shocking.

The play, which opened Wednesday night at Olney Theatre Center, is an unsettling drama made reflective by its journalistic method. Kaufman and his New York-based team (played by the Olney actors, creating a nesting doll effect, since they also play the Wyoming folks) make no attempt to mask their intrusive presence in the West. The play shows them asking questions, recording responses and impersonating the people they met. It even includes some of the instructions the locals gave them.

"Say it correct," a priest begs awkwardly, knowing the character of Laramie is in his interlocutors' hands.

"The Laramie Project" uncovers as wide a cross-section of Wyoming as you could hope to find, from defiant ranchers and unforgiving church figures to a Muslim student and a man who says that when he wants to go to a gay bar, he goes to Denver. A lot of the people we meet claim Wyoming is a "live and let live" kind of place. And there are those who agree but feel compelled to add that anyone bold enough to be publicly gay -- well, they're just asking for it.

Some of the people involved are clearly reluctant to be turned into characters in a play by interloping New Yorkers. And as you watch the show, it's hard not to wonder how much theatricality is too much -- whether an actor's particular twang or strut injects an uncomfortable level of performance into a piece that should be unembellished.

Director Jim Petosa seems perfectly aware of the question. Yet he is unafraid to let the actors play the material. So although the tight-knit ensemble generally approaches the play with sensitivity and respect, you occasionally get figures that seem broad: a bawdy, slow-talking old floozy, for instance, or a comically jumpy and self-absorbed bartender. And you get a snappy visual design by Scott Zink and J. Michael Hishchynsky featuring projections of wide-open spaces and innocent faces.

Still, this is essentially documentary theater: plain-spoken, straightforward and often forcefully blunt. Lighting designer Dan Covey isolates performers in shafts of light for revelatory bits of testimony, and the words alone -- particularly the accounts of Shepard's abduction, beating and injuries -- are enough to elicit gasps.

Kaufman and his group found plenty of admirable, even courageous people in Laramie, and you can see how hearts and minds were changed by Shepard's murder. (The benevolent tone late in the show is rather amazing.) Yet the driving question is how such an atrocity could have been committed. "I guess I didn't understand the magnitude with which some people hate," one person says.

Watch and learn.

The Laramie Project, written by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Jim Petosa. Scenic design, James Kronzer; costumes, Susan Chiang; sound design, Dave White. With Anne Bowles, Helen Hedman, Jesse Hooker, Christopher Lane, Susan Lynskey, Paul Morella, Alan Wade, Harry A. Winter and MaryBeth Wise. Through Aug. 11 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400.

Christopher Lane, rear, and Jesse Hooker in Olney's "The Laramie Project," which concerns the murder of Matthew Shepard.