Outside the big cities, AIDS can seem like a distant tragedy, so Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner strove to write an accessible film ''that would play between New York and L.A.'' He succeeded: When the film went wide last month, it spent two weeks in the No. 1 position at the box office-and found an audience even in midwestern multiplexes. Peoria, Ill., moviegoers reflected on Philadelphia's message: Ryan Durham, 20, car salesman ''It showed more about AIDS and gays than what you see on TV or other movies. It was a little shocking but really honest.''
Dan Flynn, 29, engineer ''I thought the acting was very impressive. You could just sense the love between Andrew and Miguel. I don't know much about that lifestyle, but it seemed very realistic and believable to me.''
Deb Mitchell, 36, sales associate ''It made me more aware of prejudices I probably have that I don't think I have or that I don't want to admit I have.''
Allyson Taylor, 28, pediatric nurse practitioner ''The physical deterioration Tom Hanks' character went through was really realistic. I work with AIDS patients so I know the film was pretty true to life.''
Abbie Tear, 12, student ''I thought it was a good movie, but I know I wouldn't have liked it as much if his family hadn't been so supportive. In fact, I probably couldn't have taken that; it would have been too sad.''
Amy Kindle, 14, student ''It was a little shocking for me, because this isn't a place where you see gay people acting freely on the streets. It didn't bother me. I'm just not used to it.''
Carrie Ayres, 13, student ''I probably would have reacted to Tom Hanks the way Denzel Washington did at first. It's not that I wouldn't like him, it's just that I haven't been around people who have AIDS. After I learned about AIDS and thought about it, I probably would have gone back to try to be his friend.''