A library is usually a place where the history of civilization is found. But a staged reading by the Topanga Actors Company of Jennifer Haley’s award-winning play, The Nether, brought an unsettling glimpse of our possible destiny to Topanga Library, the weekend of October 28-29.
The Nether is set in the near future where the Internet has become its own dimension, offering a life devoid of consequences. For example, The Hideaway is a virtual reality where paying customers can engage in explicit role-playing with virtual children, including sex acts and murder. It was created by one of the play’s main characters, Sims/Papa—acted with conviction and great skill by Stephen Hoye.
Central to the play is Iris. She is played by Linda Molnar, who weaves a fine thread between precociousness and vulnerability. In a scene with Woodnut, an undercover detective sensitively portrayed by Micah Dyer, we learn that while Iris is one of a line of nine-year-old girls playing characters who fulfill The Hideaway customers’ fantasies, there must have been an original “real” nine-year-old girl.
This leads to Sims/Papa being charged with sodomy, rape and murder. He is interrogated by Detective Morris of the Nether’s investigative unit, who admits Sims has a “terminal right to log in.” Catherine McClenahan brings a true authority to the role of Morris.
Sims is told by Morris that if he does not reveal the location of his server, “we will rescind your login.” That’s a terrible punishment for Sims, who argues he has created a place where he and others can be themselves without endangering real children.
Customer Doyle, played effectively and sympathetically (an amazing achievement, given the subject matter) by Bill Pierce, is also being interrogated by Morris, who asks if his wife knows what he’s been up to. “She’s as aware as she wants to be,” is the chilling reply.
Doyle says he is considering becoming a permanent “shade” to enter The Nether full time and live as someone else.
This is where the play and the performances become truly gripping as the characters reveal their pain and back stories. There’s a twist in the denouement that allows all the actors to dig deep and mine emotions from anger and disgust to frustration and despair. Hoye does a great job here, running between pathos, anger and remorse with total believability.
In her director’s notes, Paula Labrot said, “All of us are writing the history of the Internet’s beginnings. There are two sides to this ‘bitcoin.’ There is the technical side, all the hardware and software developing at a velocity limited only by imagination and funding. And there is the consequential side—the physical, cultural and moral effects that fall on the human beings creating such alchemy.”
After the performance, as the audience mingled with the cast, Labrot said this was a hard project for her because she doesn’t usually like dystopia. But she likes The Nether as it poses important questions about the future.
“It’s a wonderful, beautifully written play and makes us think about the effects of our amazing technologies on the human side of the coin. And it enshrines the importance of relationships,” said Labrot. “As a company, we had a great experience wandering through the dialogue with each other. We hope the audience did as well.”
They did, judging by the standing ovation and enthusiastic applause at the reading’s conclusion. If the success of a play can be measured by how long it stays in the mind and makes you think about a subject, however unpleasant, then this was a good choice by TAC founders and producers Judith Hendra and Labrot. I took my visiting adult children. We discussed and argued about it for hours afterwards. My son loved the play and said it was a highlight of his trip. So, TAC, mission accomplished.
The Topanga Actors Company is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. For donations or volunteer opportunities, email: email@example.com.