Steve Schine and Maya Hlava in Jennifer Haleys The Nether'', directed by Karen Kessler, at A Red Orchid Theatre.
Steve Schine and Maya Lou Hlava in Jennifer Haley's The Nether, directed by Karen Kessler, at A Red Orchid Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

In the near-future reality of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, the internet as we know it has evolved into a fully immersive virtual-reality network, where users enjoy the full spectrum of sensory experience via their online avatars. Some people become so addicted to the Nether that they "cross over," leasing life-support machines and living in the virtual world full-time. And, of course, some people turn to the Nether to fulfill their darkest desires.

Guy Van Swearingen is the only actor we see both online and off. He plays Sims, the programmer and proprietor of one very private corner of the Nether called the Hideaway. The Hideaway appears to be a lush Victorian manse with a strict code of conduct and absolute anonymity. No real names, no identifying details. Sims likes to be called Papa as he raises the digital children who share his Nether realm — and pimps them out to anonymous visitors who do unspeakable things to them.

These children are no mere holograms. They have distinct personalities of their own, and they exist wholly independently of Papa, though they give him their complete trust. Papa's favorite is Iris. We are told Iris is 9 years old, and though actress Maya Lou Hlava is a few years older, she still radiates an innocence that helps keep tensions high through the play's 85-minute run time. She builds a believable rapport with Woodnut (the charming Steve Schine), an undercover investigator sent to the Hideaway to gather evidence to build a case against Sims.

In the offline scenes, Doug Vickers (as Doyle) inspires pathos and revulsion as a former science teacher who is rendered obsolete when schooling moves online, and who now relies on the Hideaway for solace and fulfillment. Between Vickers' understated vulnerability and Van Swearingen's measured self-control, the so-called monsters of The Nether never feel like caricatures. They're sickening, yes, but they're also sick. As their foil in the interrogation room, Ashley Neal (as Morris) never quite rises to the level of their rich portrayals, but she has some fine moments in the latter half of the play, as the boundaries between Nether life and the offline become less defined.

Director Karen Kessler makes excellent use of John Musial's set, restricting the action in the "real world" to a harsh and unyielding corner of the stage, while the Hideaway is an open, sprawling space, backed by lovely poplars and lit with dappled warmth by lighting designer Mike Durst. The residents and customers wear simple Victorian costumes by Myron Elliot, with Hlava especially decked out like an illustration in a children's story. It's enticing, but for all its apparent beauty, the Hideaway is still a digital unreality, and the set depicts just that, with inlaid slivers of mirrors creating fractured reflections of the action seen onstage.

The Nether is provocative, but it doesn't rely on shocks to move the story along. The tight production makes it impossible to look away even when the play is hard to watch. While it is unlikely that we will see a Nether in our lifetimes, Jennifer Haley's sharp script asks uncomfortable and complex questions that are growing more timely as our own digital world grows more sophisticated.