by Phil Beck
The title of The Nether refers to the virtual reality realm that the internet will evolve into at some unspecified future time in Jennifer Haley’s provocative play, which opened Dreamwell Theatre’s season on Friday Sept.16 at Public Space One. The audience is prepared immediately for something out of the ordinary by the unconventional set, which is arranged on two levels. In front of the stage, at eye level with the seats, sits a table with a chair on either end. On the stage behind is a charming Victorian interior with carved furniture and a garden setting with iron chair and lush plant life. The action of the play will alternate between these upper and lower levels, moving back and forth in time and between reality and fantasy.
The plot follows an investigation into a virtual site called The Hideaway, where child predators can indulge their darkest fantasies with virtual children. Morris, a detective (Jessica Wilson), attempts to force The Hideaway’s shadowy creator, Sims (Matthew Brewbaker), to reveal his server so the morally offensive site can be taken down. Sims (perhaps too obviously named) argues that he and his guests have the right to do whatever they want in a protected space since no real children are involved, just consenting adults engaged in role-playing. In a second interrogation that intertwines the first, Morris questions one of the site’s regular visitors, Doyle (Chuck Dufano), a distinguished teacher worn down by the effort of hiding his secret life. She wants him to help her dismantle The Hideaway.
The interrogations take place in the stark foreground. The stage is reserved for the virtual encounters of The Hideaway. There, Sims’ alter ego, Papa (also played by Brewbaker) lives a seemingly blissful existence with Iris (Kiva Meeks-Mosley), a precocious 11-year-old who dotes on him but understands her true function is to entertain the various male visitors to the site. A newcomer, Woodnut (Ruben A. Lebron), appears and in the course of repeated visits upsets the delicate balance of life in The Hideaway, revealing the true nature of its visitors’ involvement.
The Nether is not for everyone. The disturbing subject matter at its core ensures that. But around this core, author Haley has woven a truly fascinating dialogue on the limits of freedom and the price of being human. The artfully designed play is a compact 75 minutes (presented without intermission) but manages to address an impressive array of ethical and philosophical issues during its short span. The intense scenes between Morris and Sims are as much intellectual debate as criminal investigation. Though evenly matched, the wily Sims frequently slips out of Morris’s verbal traps and sometimes appears to gain the upper hand. He argues forcefully that behavior in a virtual world has no consequences in the real world and therefore can’t be wrong. No authority, in fact, should have the right to dictate what goes on in a person’s imagination. But Morris is unimpressed by the appeal to the purely imaginistic nature of The Hideaway’s activities. In her view, those actions take place between people who live in a real world and therefore impact that world, whether or not they’re themselves real.
Wilson and Brewbaker shine in their roles. Under Rachael Lindhart’s taut direction, their debates never become bombastic or erode into dry abstraction. Both actors make it clear from the opening moment that the contest of wills between them isn’t about mere ideas or power but about deeply held beliefs. For each of them, it’s personal. Wilson seems to hold the whole play’s considerable tension in her rigid posture, clipped diction, and unflinching gaze at Sims as she fires questions and accusations in his direction. Brewbaker ranges more widely, commanding the interrogation room at times by moving threateningly close to Morris, sitting jauntily on table’s edge (emphasizing his character’s precarious position), and attempting to unnerve her with obscene talk. Arrogant, sly, but also curiously principled, Brewbaker allows the audience to glimpse all the contradictions of his complex character, a combination of visionary, charlatan, and victim of a terrible weakness. It’s not the least of Haley’s achievements that Sims is at his most believable and human when he’s defending the indefensible in the name of personal liberty.
The other cast members are excellent. Meeks-Mosley and Lebron both play characters hiding a secret identity, which they signal at key moments with a change of tone or awkward gesture without breaking the illusion of the virtual roles they’re inhabiting. It’s a fine line to walk and both do it well. Special mention must be made of Meeks-Mosley, a talented 7th grader who performs with maturity beyond her years. Watching someone her age in this part is disquieting, and that’s the point. Casting an older actor would have masked Iris’s vulnerability and lessened the emotional shock value for the audience. Dreamwell was wise to cast it as it did, and lucky to find someone of Meeks-Moseley’s capability for the challenging role. As for the tragic Doyle, we first see him sitting at the interrogation table, his bowed head wrapped in his arms, an eloquent image of despair. Dufano’s performance as the broken but still dignified gentleman is the play’s most moving.
The use of the dual set creates a boundary line between reality and fantasy that is both aesthetic and psychological. We can see ourselves how much more beautiful and appealing the fantasy world onstage is, so we can empathize with the characters who find a more fulfilled life there, even if we can’t condone their actions. But literally standing between us and that elevated space, on the same level as we sit, is the forbidding interrogation table, suggesting that self-delusion is blocked by examination.
The freedom of thought vs. mind control theme lends the play a kind of 1984ish quality, which I imagine was part of Haley’s intent. Having begun their last season with a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, it’s a fitting choice for Dreamwell to open this year with a production that contains echoes of it. Like 1984, The Nether directly challenges its audience to think about crucial issues of identity, freedom, and authority. We of course already live in a world in which our online data is tracked, our personal information collected and stored. The fast pace of technological change would suggest that the virtual environment envisioned by The Nether is not that far away. Haley’s play challenges us to think about the implications it would have for our already compromised privacy. Is play-acting heinous activity in a virtual realm truly harmless? Are there truly no victims and no consequences? And even if there are, how far should the state be allowed to interfere to protect us from ourselves? By asking these questions, Dreamwell’s riveting production of this thoughtful play will help you prepare yourself for what the future may offer.