Anique Clements and William Thomas Evans in FST's The Nether.

What if your real-world life was so excruciating you ended up spending more time in a virtual reality one? And what would you do while you were there—perhaps things unspeakable in your real world, but without consequences in the virtual one? That’s the basis of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether, Florida Studio Theatre’s current production in its Stage III series, which is designed to present what we all seem to refer to as “challenging” material.

And certainly it is challenging with the creepy The Nether, where guests to a Victorian-era setting of the future dark web called The Hideaway can, through their avatars, abuse and even kill virtual children. It’s a world created by a man appropriately named Sims (William Thomas Evans), and when The Nether opens we see him being aggressively questioned by police detective Morris (Anique Clements), who believes she has uncovered evidence of a real crime.

Sam Mossler as Doyle in The Nether.

Moving back and forth in time, we soon pay a visit to The Hideaway ourselves, where Sims, known here as Papa to his young charges, seems affectionate with one special girl, Iris (Leah Greene). But that doesn’t prevent him from encouraging a new visitor to the realm, Woodnut (Eric Gilde), to play out whatever fantasies he might wish to. And back in the real world, the detective is now setting her sights on a depressed middle-aged science teacher named Doyle (Sam Mossler), who’s ready to abandon reality altogether and become a “shade” by crossing over permanently. Gradually, we learn more about who Sims, Doyle and the others really are, as The Nether also addresses issues of identity here.

Leah Greene and Eric Gilde in The Nether

While other productions of this play have apparently had more elaborate sets, Stage III remains pretty minimalist in its approach. So we are mainly introduced to its visions of the future and the past by scenic backgrounds and by the costumes (by Bruce Price and Lea Umberger, respectively.) That’s OK, though, as it encourages us to use our imaginations to create our own versions of Haley’s creation.

Under the direction of Jason Cannon, The Nether starts off at too high a pitch, with Clements and Evans shouting at each other from the first moment; it makes you wonder what they can build to. But as the action moves along we are intrigued—by the smoothly villainous Sims, who admits he’s sick; by the innocent, engaging Iris, who may break the rules of The Hideaway (Greene succeeds in portraying a young child, aided again by costume and hairstyle); by Woodnut, who finds himself in trouble during his fantasy visits. There are enough questions to ask ourselves as we leave the theater that The Nether lingers in the mind.

The Nether continues through Feb. 7 in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre; for tickets call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.   

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