The Vespiary Stark Raving at the Coho Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, 232-7072, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through April 30, $10-18

Stark Raving's latest project, Matthew B. Zrebski's brand-new The Vespiary, is a beautiful, meticulous production, passionately acted by a talented cast and expertly staged by director Kristan Seemel. A rare horror play, it's thoughtful, takes its time, and is refreshing for doing so. Its only problem is that the story it's taken such care to develop is completely derivative. Luke (Shaun Patrick Hennessy) is a lonely kid in rural Texas with scary eyes and a strange ability to heal people's ailments with merely a touch. Such a character is a horror staple and it should come as no surprise to fans of the genre that the local religious fanatics, led by the chilling Reverend Lyle (Gary Norman), think he's the spawn of Satan. The play devotes itself to uncovering the dark history Lyle and Luke share, and the people it's affected, including Luke's lone friend from childhood, Dustin (Mario Calcagno) and his wife (Melissa Kaiser).

The play occurs in both the present and 10 years ago. Present-day Lyle is enfeebled and terribly haunted by the ghost of his daughter, Ruthie. Skulking around in a flimsy dress, her hair hanging in her eyes, Erin Matley is perfectly cast as Ruthie, even if she is directly embodying the demonchild brought to vivid life in the film The Ring. As the backstory unfolds, we slowly learn how she died and what happened to the tormented Luke. It involves lots and lots of wasps; another always-creepy, if banal, horror device.

The Vespiary relies heavily on time-tested technical tricks to enhance the goosebump-factor--Elias Foley's ambient sound design is oppressive and seamless and the classic blood-curdling scream is used but not overused. A strange ending featuring an encounter between the adult versions of Luke and Dustin hints at something intriguing, but winds up being ambiguous to the point of confusing, and ultimately adds up to nothing of consequence. What remains is an orderly, well-sculpted array of familiar gimmicks as entertaining and pleasing as any old-fashioned, scary matinee movie. Now if only popcorn were allowed in the Coho Theater.