The subject matter is repugnant, but the drama is relentlessly gripping in The Nether, the dark and powerful play that opened at Stage West on Saturday.
Set in the near future, this drama by Jennifer Haley deals with the shadiest corners of the Internet, or the Nether, as it has come to be known. The lure of living in the digital world has been made so enticing by the Nether that some users decide to “cross over” and become “shades” — people who live their lives online while dying a slow death on life support in the real world.
The opening scene takes place in an interrogation room where Detective Morris (Allison Pistorius) is grilling Mr. Sims, aka “Papa” (Aaron Roberts), about the site, or “realm,” he operates on the Nether called “the Hideaway.” At the site, users engage in role play that includes sex with children.
Morris, who is a sort of cyber cop, sees Sims as a repellant pedophile and profiteer. Sims defends himself by pointing out that any crimes he and his like-minded Nether users commit are perpetrated only in a virtual world. He claims the Hideaway serves a cathartic purpose and prevents him and his customers from acting on their perverse impulses in the real world.
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What follows is an incredibly tense showdown between two highly intelligent and motivated characters. We move back and forth between the interrogation room, where we meet one of Sims’ customers, Doyle (Randy Pearlman), and the Hideaway, where we come to know another user, Woodnut (Blake McNamara), and Iris (Jad Saxton), one of the attractions of the realm.
Nothing else can be said about the plot of this taut, 75-minute drama without giving away too much. But suffice it to say that some things happen that you might not see coming. The artful way in which Haley times and releases her revelations is one of the many surprisingly beautiful things about this play.
The other reasons this show looks so off-putting on paper but is so compelling on stage have to do with the way the text is presented in this production, directed with great sensitivity and insight by Garret Storms. The acting is super across the board. Watching Pistorius and Roberts slug it out is like watching a heavyweight title bout between evenly matched foes. Both performers are capable of blowing lesser actors off the stage, so it is exciting to see them exchanging haymakers.
Saxton is also excellent in a role that few actresses would ever want to take on. She tiptoes through the minefield, and her portrayal is something to behold.
But perhaps the best performance of all is turned in by Pearlman, who is known for his comic roles. He does a superb job of projecting the pitiful angst of his character without resorting to histrionics or tricks in a gorgeously internalized performance.
The overall staging and look of this drama are also exceptional. The sets and video projects by Nate Davis and Storms are nothing short of brilliant. These visual elements are well supported by Kellen Voss’ sound design. The only slight visual flaw is that Luke Atkison’s lighting plan is plagued by inappropriate shadows when the action moves to the Hideaway.
So while the content may be challenging, The Nether is a show about much more than inappropriate sexual behavior and the Internet.
It takes on larger questions as to how we define fantasy and reality, and keeps the audience thinking and guessing from the first scene far beyond the last.