The Nether is a riveting trip into troubling online terrain

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      By Jennifer Haley. Directed by Chris Lam. A Redcurrant Collective production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, January 19. Continues until January 28

      “Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” says a character early on in The Nether. Though the play deals with hot topics like online identity and pedophilia, this riveting production keeps the ethical debate on the back burner, instead foregrounding its highly unconventional love story.

      In Jennifer Haley’s taut script, what we currently know as our physical reality has been all but subsumed by the virtual world. Nature has been pretty much eradicated. Children—and there aren’t many left—don’t go to school; they are educated by immersive educational games in the online world of the Nether. Many people have “crossed over” and become “shades”, abandoning their real-life identities and responsibilities for a full-time virtual existence.

      One of the few remaining forms of authentic face-to-face contact, it seems, is the interrogation, and at the top of the play, Det. Morris is questioning Sims, known online as Papa. Sims has created a virtual realm called the Hideaway, a sense-rich evocation of the Victorian era where references to contemporary technology are forbidden and visitors can have sex with children. Sims argues that since all the players in his realm are adults, he’s actually protecting real children from their would-be predators, but a skeptical Morris sends an investigator, Woodnut, into the realm to gather more information. She also questions Doyle, a former teacher who is one of the Hideaway’s regular visitors. The play pivots between the interrogation room and the virtual realm, where we watch Woodnut fall in love with Iris, a nine-year-old girl.

      Director Chris Lam’s minimalist staging is effective; the powerful contrast between the sterility of the real world and the richness of the Hideaway is largely left to our imagination and to the exquisitely atmospheric and subtly ominous sound design, by James Coomber, and lighting, by Jonathan Kim.

      And Lam’s five-member cast is terrific. David Bloom, as Sims, and Linden Banks, as Doyle, both give nuanced performances that make them impossible to write off as easy villains. Lissa Neptuno makes Morris a levelheaded, brass-tacks investigator, and Douglas Ennenberg imbues Woodnut with an openhearted innocence. Julia Siedlanowska finds depth and texture in the vulnerable and preternaturally wise Iris.

      “It’s okay to forget who you think you are and discover who you might be,” Iris tells Woodnut, encouraging him to pursue his fantasies, and the characters' discoveries are both surprising and troubling. Ultimately, the world of The Nether proves to be as morally ambiguous as the one we currently inhabit.