‘The Nether’ takes intriguing journey through virtual reality

Jennifer Haley’s 2012 award-winner, “The Nether,” is deceptively formulaic at first: In a claustrophobic, nondescript gray room, a terse law enforcement officer is aggressively interrogating Mr. Sims, a perplexed, sad-sack, middle-aged guy.

But soon enough, as seen in this excellent San Francisco Playhouse production, Haley begins to probe deeper — and deeper still.

In fact, moral quandaries abound in this tight, intricate and ultimately compassionate examination of human need, in its many variations and under its many guises, in a technological age.

Set in the perhaps not-too-distant future, “The Nether” imagines an advanced form of virtual reality, called The Nether — a habit-forming online world that involves all five senses. In The Nether, anything goes, as long as a vaguely defined police force doesn’t investigate your site for criminal behavior.

But that’s just what has happened to Mr. Sims (the always-brilliant Warren David Keith), who runs a “realm” called The Hideaway, which he manages from a secret, offshore server.

In The Hideaway, which manifests as a beautiful Victorian house (designed by Nina Ball, each room in elegant period detail), avatars interact in ways deemed suspicious by the investigator (a wonderfully tense Ruibo Qian); she’s gotten a full report back on the goings-on from her agent, Mr. Woodnut (smoothly underplayed by Josh Schell), who’s infiltrated the site.

Mr. Sims, for his part, can’t see that he’s done anything wrong. After all, it’s only make-believe, despite an exceedingly intimate relationship he’s established with a pert little Victorian-era girl who calls him “Papa” (played with charm and preternatural skill on opening night by sixth-grader Carmen Steele, who alternates with Matilda Holtz).

In The Nether, some obsessive game-players choose to “cross over” — to defect from reality and live the rest of their lives as avatars in their realm of choice, their physical bodies on life support.

Mr. Doyle (portrayed by a touchingly anguished Louis Parnell) is one of those so-called shades. A frequent visitor to the Hideaway, he is, like Mr. Sims, middle-aged, but his yearnings take a different direction.

In The Nether, as one character says, you forget who you think you are and discover who you might be. It’s a provocative idea, rife with implications in this intriguing drama.

Bill English directs with his customary sensitivity, mindful of pace — the set changes seem to occur instantaneously — and of production values, which include Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s eerie sound design and Brooke Jennings’ lovely period costumes.

The Nether
Presented by: San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When:7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. select Sundays; closes March 5
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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