Thoughts on ‘The Nether’ at the Phoenix Theatre

I grew up reading science fiction. And while I appreciated a good space battle or alien invasion, my favorite science fiction stories were the ones that used speculation about the future or about alien races to make me wrestle with questions of the here and now.

That pleasure came back while watching “The Nether” (at the Phoenix Theatre through Nov. 22) although pleasure may not be quite the right word.

“The Nether,” you see, is a deeply uncomfortable play about a future online domain where avatars can act out our most horrible fantasies. It’s not “real,” technically. But it’s “technically” real. Which raises some complications.

Specifically, the play asks if we are morally responsible for our online crimes—here including child sexual abuse and murder—if the ultra-realistic child victim is actually an adult and no physical harm actually happens. Further, does online violence beget real-life violence or provide an outlet for violent tendencies, in essence keeping it off the streets?

Jennifer Haley’s play—one of the more popular current offerings in regional theaters—occasionally stumbles over overt exposition (a problem with a lot of science fiction, as I recall), but it more than makes up for this minor shortcoming with a compelling storyline that doesn’t allow for easy moralizing.

The action is divided between an interrogation room and the online Victorian fantasy realm and the stark contrast is in interesting contrast to a play that refuses to divide things into black and white. In an increasing dark real world, who wouldn’t be drawn to such a lovely, responsibility free realm?

While “The Nether” is a play of ideas, those ideas are revealed through an edgy mystery plot and interesting characters. The Phoenix has graced the taut play with a very strong cast, including Paeton Chavis, ideally cast and impeccably performing the part of the “child,” Iris. 

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