Theater Review: A Virtual Investigator in a Dystopian World


The Nether: a play by Jennifer Hailey

Review by Hal Humphreys, Executive Editor  

At the door, robotic offline representatives verify your credentials and escort you into Club Limbo, the set for Jennifer Hailey’s fascinating high-concept play, The Nether. At first, it seems a tad hokey, but it sets the mood. And once you’re in, you’re all the way in.

The Nether is a dark and controversial crime drama that explores some pretty heady topics. It challenges you to consider, and maybe even identify with, the point of view of a pedophile operating entirely in the virtual world and a detective straddling a gossamer ethical line. The play is an 80-minute struggle with right and wrong, reality and fantasy, moral and legal.

At the very least, The Nether demands that we rethink our relationship to technology.

As a professional investigator, I’m painfully aware of the digital footprints we all leave. For evidentiary purposes, our traffic online is at best problematic, at worst devastating. I’ve worked cases where text messages and emails were a defendant’s downfall. Police and prosecutors use the vestiges of our online interactions to prove location and timeline. I recently watched a prosecutor construe portions of a text conversation into a nefarious-sounding scheme.

The Nether, from an investigative standpoint, highlights the damning trails we leave online, but it also pays homage to good old “offline” detective work. Work history, bank accounts, and public records are used to track down suspects and identify witnesses. By the time we meet her, the lead investigator, Detective Morris, has conducted her research and identified her suspect. Her interrogation is so perfectly written, I immediately found her a convincing investigator. The minimal set (a table and two chairs) perfectly evoked the many interview rooms of my experience and imagination.

I’m not going to get into plot or spoilers here. You need to go see this play.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Vali Forrister, she should consider sitting for her PI license. Forrister IS Detective Morris. Like so many of the best investigators I know, Detective Morris, in Forrister’s hands, vacillates between angry and confrontational to empathetic and understanding. 

Of course, the acting thing has worked out extremely well for Vali Forrister so far, so I don’t foresee her joining our investigative ranks. Forrister is a Nashville maven and founder of the Actors Bridge Ensemble, and also a longtime friend. So when she called me a couple of months ago and asked me to lead a “talk back” after the play, I said “yes” without thinking. 

I’m not sure what I expected from a talk back. And to be honest, after the play, I was so full of emotions and questions that I wasn’t sure how to begin the conversation. So as people rose from their seats, I simply stood up and started talking. (Later, my wife told me that at that point, a woman gestured toward me and asked her, “Is this real?” Such is the reality-shattering power of The Nether.)

Once the audience overcame the initial disorientation of, “What’s he doing? Why is he talking to us?” most of them settled in to listen. Then, a question. A comment. And an answer. And then, another question … and it was on.

What ensued was a fascinating 30-minute open forum, with people from the audience asking me questions, asking the players questions, and sharing personal stories. I was deeply impressed with the depth of thought and insight that night, and the level of discourse between audience and actors in a small theatre company in Nashville, TN.

You need to see this play. If you’re in Nashville on the 10th of December, please join us for another talk back and a chance to grapple with some extremely gray-area ideas about taboos, thoughtcrime, and the choices we make in our virtual lives. If you’re not in Nashville, please, please, please, find a production of The Nether and go see it. It will confound and vex you. It will shatter your any unexamined beliefs you may have about right and wrong, fantasy and reality.

You can buy tickets here for the final weekend’s shows, Thursday—Sunday, Dec. 10-13.


 Watch the trailer: