RICHMOND, JAN. 21 -- A McLean-based theater group, on a two-week tour of small towns in western Virginia, has been barred from performing in Radford schools because its actors once performed with AIDS patients.

Superintendent Michael Wright said he denied a request by the Cornerstone Theater Co. because it is "my belief that the community would not support the use of school facilities by people who have worked with individuals who have AIDS."

The 10-member troupe, directed by Bill Rauch, 25, of McLean, is composed primarily of young professionals who met while students at Harvard University.

They were invited to perform in Radford, a university town of 13,000 southwest of Roanoke, by the community's newly organized arts council.

Alison Carey, a founder of the company, which is practicing for its tour at the 4-H center in Abington, Va., said, "One performance of one play is not important to us. But there are much greater issues at stake. However great our frustration, we hope this will turn into a beneficial and educational experience, especially for the students, and inspire them to begin a thorough AIDS education program."

The troupe, which had planned to perform Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for high school students and townspeople, and a melodrama, "I Can't Pay the Rent," for elementary pupils, plans to continue its tour in Westmoreland, Powhatan and Rappahannock counties.

Dana Gregory, chairwoman of Radford's Council for Community Enrichment, said her organization "in no way sees this as a risk to our children or the community." The mother of two elementary school pupils who would have seen the show, Gregory added that "we support the humanitarian gesture that Cornerstone Theater made in going to Miami and producing a play about AIDS with people who are directly and indirectly affected by this disease."

The arts council learned about the group from the Virginia Commission of the Arts, which is financing the tour as part of a $24,000 grant. Wright, who was promoted to superintendent of the 1,300-pupil school Jan. 1, said he learned of the troupe's connection with the AIDS issue from an article in Newsweek magazine of Sept. 21.

It described Cornerstone as a group of idealistic young people who perform mostly in rural communities, where they stay for a month or two and invite local residents to join in acting and writing scripts. Cornerstone was in Miami in the fall.

The regional director of the Virginia health department, Dr. Donald R. Stern of Roanoke, said he assured Wright that he saw no risk in allowing the troupe to perform.

The chairman of the Radford School Board, John M. McPhail, an education professor at Radford University, a state school, supported the superintendent's decision.

"I know what the medical people say," McPhail said, "but words are my business, and when they say there is 'no significant chance' {that AIDS can be transmitted by casual contact}, that means they are not absolutely certain."

Dr. Donald M. Poretz, chief of infectious disease at Fairfax Hospital and chairman of the Medical Society of Virginia's AIDS committee, said the Radford action shows "the need for continuing education" about AIDS. "It's not just the average person, it's college professors, presidents of corporations and those in the medical profession.

"I spend a good portion of my life with HIV positive patients," Poretz said. "Do you think I would submit myself and my family to that process if I thought it would be potentially lethal?

"Walking on a theater stage or having a discussion with" AIDS patients is less risky than smoking, Poretz said. "I wonder if any of those School Board members smoke?"