Ethics and Virtual Reality Take Center Stage in 'The Nether' at Dobama Theatre


  • Steve Wagner Photography

In a virtual world where there are no consequences in reality, what decisions should we make? Should we seek to create real consequences from actions in the virtual world, or we should explore the limits of unadulterated freedom? And if actions conducted in the virtual world have no real-world consequences, though would be considered criminal or worse in the real world, are those virtual actions considered harmless?

In Dobama’s production of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether, these and other ethical questions are explored.

In the play, The Nether has replaced the internet. It is a virtual landscape of crafted “realms” where you can inhabit any identity you want while seeking experiences as this avatar—with your actual body asleep and hooked up to a computer. Driving the narrative is detective Morris’ investigation of a realm that might be merging the virtual and the real in illegal—not to mention unethical—ways, specifically with its programs of children. Played with a law enforcer’s put-on moral resignation by Sarah Durn, Morris works for a force that monitors activity on the Nether. When she interrogates Mr. Sims/“Papa” (Matthew Wright) about his realm The Hideaway, she seeks the consequences of manifesting our most private, secret, taboo desires in a place where we repeatedly act on them as if they matter only to ourselves.

In this minimalistic production, director Shannon Sindelar relies on the strong performances of her cast far more than set design, lighting, sound, or costuming, though all these aspects of the production certainly help to create the worlds the audience sees. While this interpretation might seem counterintuitive for convincingly depicting a virtual world, it works well because the core of the play is very much a procedural narrative, like those in a crime drama.

An overarching focus in this kind of story is conversation between characters, specifically concerning the ways human behaviors intersect with larger social norms. The Nether’s dialogue, while at times too laced with exposition, generally strikes a good balance between sounding natural and sounding “performed,” which rightly feels like the consequence of the procedures undertaken via roles in both the real world and in virtual worlds.

After Mr. Sims begins the play with the first line—“I want to go home”—the dialogue is performed accordingly: with a search to see where each character might belong.

Each member of the cast believably oscillates between withdrawal-like angst and inebriated cheer when considering the ethical dilemmas of belonging—or not—in a consequence-free world. But the young Calista Zajac, who plays Iris, is the stand out. Zajac thankfully brings a degree of tact to her character, who is the program of a nine year old girl who exists in the Nether but exhibits a stilted, yet insightful subjectivity. To convey both the programed-ness and the feeling of a self for her character, Zajac effectively mimes the saccharine manners and chipper vocal flourishes of the young girls often seen in fantasy media while also displaying a genuine curiosity regarding questions like what constitutes God, which Iris wonders might be in “the way we are with each other.”

Sindelar’s dedication to serving the core of the play shows in making sure her actress embodies this cartoonish version of a young girl. The script for The Nether has a note about Iris, stating that a child actor takes an audience “out of the play” and that this is a desirable consequence, especially with The Nether’s subject matter. If Zajac wasn’t properly attuned to how Iris helps the audience reflect on the artificiality of the show, then its many uncanny valleys would’ve peaked too far into reality. The distance between the worlds in this production and our own worlds is perfected such that, even though there are moments that depict alarming interactions with a child, I felt secure enough to manually consider the horrors of what might be possible in virtual reality.

Our reactions are determined relative to others’ reactions. I observed others fidgeting, laughing at serious moments, even feigning surprise. (I surprised myself at feigning my own surprise). Procedures of identity and identification are often determined by the narratives imposed on us by others: strangers, co-workers, family, friends, lovers. But this isn’t all bad. We often believe, as Morris says at one point to Sims, that “there is a line” to our privacy—“even in the imagination”—which we cannot cross if we hope to live ethically with others. But other times, we’re lured by the prospect, as Iris says, of “forgetting who [we] think [we] are and discovering who [we] might be.”

The final scene of The Nether asks where you belong by both considering where to draw an ethical line and discovering who you might be in relation to several of the play’s characters. But when the show ends, you’re not likely to feel you’ve been part of a self-contained theatrical procedure that’s definitively solved anything, regardless of your judgment or discovery. You’re more likely to feel that you’re part of an ongoing network of procedural generations—lives upon lives, identities upon identities, whether in waking life, dreams, stories, online, or elsewhere.

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