Human beings deeply desire connection with other living creatures. But as technology evolves, which will be more meaningful — encounters in the real world or those experienced in virtual ones?

That is one of many questions raised in Jennifer Haley’s 90-minute, one-act play “The Nether,” being presented by Mad Horse Theatre Company in South Portland. Another is whether it would be better to allow people to act out their darkest predilections in virtual worlds rather than in real ones.

Neither the playwright nor director Christine Marshall provide answers, but the provocative production is almost as seductive as the Hideaway, the virtual world created by a mastermind named Simms. A detective named Morris is determined to find him and shut it down.

Founded in 1986, Mad Horse has a reputation for presenting cutting-edge contemporary plays along with the classics. Since 2009, its home has been a former school at 24 Mosher St., a portion of which has been converted into a 50-seat, black-box theater.

That physical space makes “The Nether” an intimate and, at times, uncomfortable experience. Audience members are voyeurs in the Hideaway, and come to understand why the characters are reluctant to leave it.

The fine cast makes the characters, who in the real world would be repulsive, admirable, even lovable. At the heart of “The Nether” is 12-year-old Maiya Koloski as Iris. It is thrilling to watch her with Paul Haley, who is not related to the playwright, as Simms.

Koloski’s Iris is a bright and charming girl approaching the brink of womanhood. She will never cross that line in this virtual world. The young actress’ openness is charming. She is seductive without being sexy and bright but never a smarty-pants. Her performance is searing.

Haley is so fine an actor, he makes a man whose darkest desires society wholeheartedly rejects appear charming and sympathetic. In this actor’s hands, Simms’ justifications for his actions sound almost reasonable and his love for Iris nearly normal.

Nick Schroeder as Woodnut, a reluctant participant in the Hideaway, Tim Ferrell as Doyle, a reluctant informer, and Janice Gardner as the icy detective give equally fine performances.

“The Nether” is a difficult play to write about without giving away the twists and turns the plot takes. It is a startling piece of theater and Mad Horse’s production is as provocative as the playwright intended. It is not for the faint of heart or children, despite Koloski’s fine performance.

Mad Horse, Marshall, her cast and production team have created a thought-provoking and, at times, emotionally draining production that theatergoers won’t soon forget. That is a rare and wonderful accomplishment.

“The Nether” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday with matinees at 3 pm. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher St. in South Portland. For tickets, call 747-4148 or visit