A recently revived folk song encourages people to “keep on the sunny side of life.” That is definitely not where Mad Horse Theatre has chosen to go with its latest production.

Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether” delves into the darker side of online life in the not-too-distant future. Hard questions of morality and criminality arise as we visit the recesses of the virtual world in this ambitious and disturbing play from 2012.

The drama develops out of the interrogation of a man named Simms who has created a virtual space called the Hideaway in an advanced form of the internet known as the Nether. There, through anonymous avatars, adult “guests” are able to indulge in activities that are far from acceptable in the real world.

Maiya Koloski as Iris and Paul Haley as Papa, in a scene from "The Nether."

Maiya Koloski as Iris and Paul Haley as Papa, in a scene from “The Nether.”

Local theater stalwart Paul Haley plays Simms, known as Papa in the virtual world, who argues that his young creations are beyond reproach since they are controlled by adults. Haley’s talent for letting strong feelings slowly seep through a gruff exterior fit this role perfectly and led him to firmly capture his character’s tortured soul.

The investigation of Simms’ realm is juxtaposed, in brief scenes, with visits to the Hideaway. There, we meet 9-year-old Iris, an avatar who accommodates men who long to act out their fantasies “outside of consequence.” This makes for some creepy, though not graphic, sequences meant for mature audiences.

Twelve-year-old Maiya Koloski was a captivating presence as Iris, popular not only with the guests but with Papa himself, for reasons better understood by the end of the 80-minute play. Despite the yuck-factor surrounding her character, Koloski hit just the right balance in her complex role and was touching in her interactions with her troubled visitors.

Janice Gardner is the authority figure from a dissipated real world who doesn’t buy the no-harm-done argument made by the online transgressors. She conveyed a striking tenacity that believably faltered later on.

Tim Ferrell and Nick Schroeder play online travelers increasingly drawn toward “crossing over” permanently into the virtual world. Both affectingly established their damaged characters, who would be further tested by revelations to come.

Director Christine Marshall and her team have minimally framed this production, placing less emphasis on the technology than on its consequences in this powerful and thought-provoking play.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Maine.

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