We report on the first phase of a study of the stellar population comprising the Orion Nebula Cluster (ONC). Approximately 50% of the ~ 3500 stars identified to date within ~ 2.5 pc of the namesake Trapezium stars are optically visible, and in this paper we focus on that sample with I < 17.5 mag. The large number and number density (npeak > 10(4) pc(-3) ) of stars, the wide range in stellar mass ( ~ 0.1-50 M_⊙), and the extreme youth (< 1-2 Myr) of the stellar population, make the ONC the best site for investigating: 1) the detailed shape of a truly ``initial'' mass spectrum; 2) the apparent age spread in a region thought to have undergone triggered star formation; 3) the time sequence of star formation as a function of stellar mass; and 4) trends of all of the above with cluster radius. Nearly 60% of the ~ 1600 optical stars have sufficient data (spectroscopy and photometry) for placement on a theoretical HR diagram; this subsample is unbiased with respect to apparent brightness or cluster radius, complete down to ~ 1 M_⊙, and representative of the total optical sample below ~ 1 M_⊙ for the age and extinction ranges characteristic of the cluster. Comparison of the derived HR diagram with traditional pre-main sequence evolutionary calculations shows a trend of increasing stellar age with increasing stellar mass. To avoid the implication of earlier characteristic formation times for higher-mass stars than for lower-mass stars, refinement of early evolutionary theory in a manner similar to the birthline hypothesis of Palla & Stahler (1993), is required. Subject to uncertainties in the tracks and isochrones, we can still investigate stellar mass and age distributions in the ONC. We find the ONC as a whole to be characterized by a mass spectrum which is not grossly inconsistent with ``standard'' stellar mass spectra. In particular, although there are structural differences between the detailed ONC mass spectrum and various models constructed from solar neighborhood data, the observed mass spectrum appears to a peak at ~ 0.2 M_⊙ and to fall off rapidly towards lower masses; several substellar objects are present. The abundance of low-mass stars relative to high-mass stars suggests that there is no bi-modal star formation mode; somewhat ironically, the ONC probably contains fractionally more low-mass stars than the solar neighborhood since the population not yet located on the HR diagram is dominated by sub-solar-mass stars. Nonetheless, the ONC mass spectrum is biased towards higher-mass stars within the innermost cluster radii (rprojected < 0.3 pc). We find the ONC as a whole to be characterized by a mean age of < 1 Myr and an age spread which is probably less than 2 Myr, but also by a bias towards younger stars at smaller projected cluster radii. Although the most massive stars and the youngest stars are found preferentially towards the center of the ONC it does not follow that the most massive stars are the youngest stars. A lower limit to the total cluster mass in stars is Mstars ~ 900 M_⊙ (probably a factor of < 2 underestimate). A lower limit to the recent star formation rate is ~ 10(-4) M_⊙ yr(-1) . All observational data in this study as well as stellar parameters derived from them are available in electronic format.