The Phoenix Theatre’s production of the award-winning play The Nether by Jennifer Haley is a fascinating if uncomfortable—even macabre—examination of morality and a person’s true nature.
Set in the near future, people now spend the majority of their time in 3D online virtual worlds that offer them complete sensory immersion. They work, go to school, and find entertainment in fabricated “realms” that can provide them infinite varieties of experiences, including some that are no longer available in the physical world, such as spacious gardens and forests of trees. Some people are so addicted to this alternate universe that they become “shades”: a body on life support while the mind becomes a permanent resident of The Nether.The Hideaway is the most sophisticated realm, and it comes under the scrutiny of Detective Morris, who has uncovered its covert and perverse purpose: It is an outlet for pedophiles. The “children” are actually avatars for adult employees of The Hideaway, but it still begs the question of whether acting out an immoral compulsion in a controlled environment remains immoral.
Under the direction of Bryan Fonseca, Bill Simmons manifests an unsettling intensity as the sociopathic Papa. What could be taken for sincere affection toward his favorite chimera, a nine-year-old named Iris, Simmons exposes as an affectation—Papa’s own fantasy that he could feel real emotions toward his targets. To justify this, he encourages (and even forces) disassociation between client and product through virtual murder of the child.
Paeton Chavis as Iris is amazing. Though she is in her early 20s, she is completely convincing as the little girl. Even her laughter is realistic—not a forced imitation that grates on the ears. Her manners and speech are genuine; her transformation into a child is seamless.
Doyle, played by Rich Rand, is a client addicted to his depravity. Instead of the expected pervert, Rand shows us a heartbroken man. Doyle is a schoolteacher on the brink of retirement with a wife and grown daughter. Rand exemplifies a person crippled by his own needs, having denied himself his innermost desires because they were considered unacceptable. He arrived at The Hideout searching for not only an outlet but also for nonjudgmental love.
Scot Greenwell’s Woodnut, the undercover detective sent into The Hideout to confirm his agency’s suspicions, is timid yet mesmerized by the world he has entered. In this place, Greenwell reacts with his own child-like delight to the strangeness of the environment, and he is drawn into the sanctuary of The Hideout.
Sarah McGee as Detective Morris lacks convincing emotion in her role, but it does not detract from the intensity of the characters’ interaction. Their proclivities may be aberrant, but the play challenges you to think deeper about subjects that remain unexplored.