By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Mar 12, 2020 at 7:59 PM

There are a lot of disturbing elements of Jennifer Haley’s play "The Nether," onstage at 53212 Presents through March 21. The second production in The Constructivists’ season, it is part detective procedural and part dystopian nightmare about escapism, fantasy and morality. Its central question is whether it’s better to live in an ideal, virtual world where there are few consequences for one’s actions, or remain in a devastated "real" world where acting on your darkest impulses will undoubtedly hurt others. 

Directed confidently by artistic director and company founder Jamielyn Gray, the taut, intricately crafted play reveals itself slowly through back-and-forth scenes. They begin in a stark, cold interrogation room in the foreground – complete with glaring overhead light – and end in a recessed blank room of cyberspace, where computer programmers can project any image they like onto a white screen and seemingly make the cell come to life. (First, lines of computer code drip down the walls of the simple but compelling set by Sarah Harris. Then verdant green leaves create a fictional forest.) 

In this world of the not-so-distant future, the environment of the earth has become practically uninhabitable. Grass and trees are a thing of the past. Children have been forced to attend schools via their computer screens, and increasingly people have sought refuge in an online realm called "the nether." The internet is not so much virtual reality as an alternate reality, one that – for many reasons – is much more appealing than the one our characters are faced with. 

Turning to a video game or website for entertainment is hardly a new idea. Millions of people regularly indulge in role-play with alternate identities, acting out scenarios that range from building one’s own fortresses in Minecraft to brandishing whole arsenals of weapons as a military commando. But what happens when people begin to prefer the lands of their imagination – alternate worlds where their anonymity allows them to act, feel, think and speak with complete freedom?

This is the beat of a government agency charged with regulating what goes on in the nether. Detective Morris (a steely Maya Danks) pursues perps whose virtual acts of depravity have real-world consequences. Her prime suspect is the calculating and marvelously pragmatic Sims (a strong Robert W.C. Kennedy). A wealthy businessman, Sims spends the majority of his time acting out his fantasies in an extraordinary world that he’s created and offering other customers the chance to do the same. 

Similar to HBO’s initial season of "Westworld," where paying guests play-act with cowboys and saloon girls in a simulated Wild West frontier town, Sims has created a lovely Victorian world. His beautiful mansion has all the niceties of the late nineteenth century, down to the clothes and top hats, the sound of an old Victrola, the smell of flowers and the wind rustling in trees. In this idyllic home, there is also a group of adorable little girls dressed in delicate white cotton pinafores, with long flowing hair and bows – the epitome of propriety and innocence. 

But Morris suspects something sinister is going on. The no-nonsense operative, her brown hair swept back into a ponytail, a gray striped jacket casually donned over jeans, believes that these shadows may indicate more dangerous behavior with real victims, causing real pain and injury.

It turns out that the girls, who are played by consenting adults (according to Sims), aren’t there for window dressing. They allow their guests to indulge in deeply inappropriate desires – of a sexual or violent nature, or both. Sims defends the practice as a "freedom of the spirit" where people can explore their darker tendencies without really getting hurt. He contends that without the trappings of the real world, people can really get to know one another and have a meaningful communion in a place that, all participants acknowledge from the beginning, is pretend. 

One girl in particular is a favorite: Iris, played deftly by Rebekkah Farr. Twisting her long auburn hair around her fingers, playing with the lace hem of her dress and fidgeting whenever she’s nervous, Farr embodies the fantasy of the schoolgirl seductress, an innocent who knows just enough to flirt. Slipping in and out of her nether character to reveal the adult who’s really voicing Iris, Farr plays the double role with eerie clarity.  

As an undercover customer Woodnut, Matthew Scales shows us a "good cop" who is both fascinated and repulsed by what he finds, while being steadily seduced by Iris and her online world. The further he descends, the more complicated the questions of morality and legality become. 

Modeled after a "CSI"-type drama, there is a lot of posturing by Sims and Detective Morris in the interrogation room, and the drama repeatedly asks the question: Will the good cop get her man? But the really fascinating arc in "The Nether" is not driving for a confession. And it’s not the larger question of whether the state should regulate what people do with their imaginations, or how they behave in their preferred realities. The most interesting conflict is between two opposing forces — Sims and Morris — who both believe equally that they are in the right, acting in the public good and protecting the people in the real world from the genuinely harmful actions of others. Ultimately both are right and wrong.

In an interview, Haley admitted that she is fascinated with the appeal of the virtual reality, and she’s written about it previously in "Marjorie Prime." If she feels strongly about the danger of computers compromising human lives and interactions, she doesn’t tip her hand here. "The Nether" is marvelously balanced. Ultimately the most harrowing consequences of this role-playing game don’t involve real crimes; they are much more personal and tragic.