Fort Worth — In a leafy glade, in a secluded home called The Hideaway, gentlemen come and go, but the children remain. We see only one of them, the girl Iris (Jād Saxton)—dressed in white, curls bouncing, innocence itself. A Victorian “Papa” (Aaron Roberts) watches over the action in the drawing room, and down a long hallway with many bedrooms. And if you aren’t uncomfortable yet, consider the repeated references to a large, well-used axe hanging nearby.
If it’s only virtual, does that make everything OK? When we deep-dive into the hyper-realities and games of online worlds, do we get a pass, a carte blanche for any behavior, any choice—or must the moral hazards we encounter there be taken as seriously as anything in our real existence? And where nothing is real, can the heart and soul still be corrupted?
Stage West’s disturbing and sharply realized production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether takes our current concern about these issues and pulls it forward into an unimaginably more complex future. The Internet is now the Nether, an all-encompassing online world with its own laws and regulations, embodied in young detective Morris (Allison Pistorius), who digs for The Hideaway’s deepest secrets—and who must decide if what happens there is “impermissible” even in Nether land.
Haley posits a time in which the seductions of virtual life have become so strong—and the actual world so bleak and colorless—that escape into another reality is common. Children never play outside. Owning a tree is a luxury few can afford. A few humans take things to a new level, becoming “shades” who give up their lives entirely, bodies cocooned as they live in virtual realms all day, every day.
Playwright Haley won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for The Nether, which premiered in Los Angeles and then played off-Broadway and in London. The play has a fast-paced rhythm, and director Garret Storms gives Haley’s off-kilter but fascinating dialogue center stage. Questions, answers and ideas come at us at top speed; we’ve barely grabbed onto one notion when another comes whizzing past.
The play’s action, reflected in a quick-change set designed by Storms and Nate Davis, switches between the lush Victorian realm of The Hideway and a dully metallic, all too real interview room—in which Morris interrogates the site’s arrogant creator, Sims (Roberts again), and Doyle (Randy Pearlman), a former teacher who seems to be one of The Hideaway’s most passionate participants. Davis also has designed a beautifully varied series of digital projections that draw us into the virtual world—and remind us of the codes and keystrokes that give us access to this strange place.
“Is this something or nothing?” asks one character. “Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” says another. Is it possible to live a life without consequences, or, when a living, thinking, choosing human is involved, aren’t we still impacted and changed by our actions—even if they occur in a fantastical un-reality?
Pistorius projects a cool intensity as detective Morris, whose motives reveal themselves slowly during the play. She’s less cool by the moment, left unraveled and vulnerable. She bounces beautifully off the hard surfaces of Roberts’ finely calibrated dual identities as Sims/Papa, which wear thin as the plot progresses. He’s so sure of himself…until he’s not.
As Doyle the teacher, Pearlman is all mushy edges and confusion, yet we realize at some point that this guy is all in, as invested as Sims himself in this simulated existence. How can we feel revulsion and still a tinge of empathy for him at the same moment? By way of contrast, Blake McNamara seems almost normal as a quiet gentleman caller to the Hideaway, Woodnut, who seems surprised by his immediate sense of connection to young Iris. And Iris, all tiny voice and giggles in Saxton’s discomfiting performance, keeps us on edge and awaiting the inevitable Fate Worse Than Death. Though, in this infinitely layered (and deeply creepy) virtual world, we can’t possibly imagine what that might be.
Not much more can be said about the plot without spoiling the twists and turns. The Nether is an intriguing and mind-tickling riff on human identity and desire, right and wrong, truth (and delusion) and consequences. There’s a certain dreaminess about The Hideaway that lulls us—yet the playwright jolts us awake from time to time, forcing us to remember that there is a real human being “behind” each character in that world. Iris, Papa, Woodnut could be…well, anyone. The realization is unsettling—and so is The Nether.