Economics has shrunk this year's American College Theater Festival down to six plays, where once there were 10. But there is considerable solace to be taken from last night's opening offering, Matt Williams' "Between Daylight and Boonville," surely one of the stronger new works ACTF has presented in its 14-year history.

Daylight and Boonville are Indiana towns; in between is desolate strip-mining country. Williams has set his drama in a bleak trailer camp on the edge of one of the mines, where the wives wait out the day for their men to come home and the children are perpetually underfoot. Theirs is not a cheerful lot, but Williams has both respect and affection for his characters--four lower-class women and one injured miner, as dumb as he is good-natured. Without ever making them more or less than they are, he draws a remarkably accurate canvas of one hot August day in their lives.

It turns out to be an exceptional day, when an explosion at the mine introduces the awful fact of death into their midst. But for much of the play, Williams occupies himself with more humdrum matters--the boredom, the jealousies, the stalled ambitions and the aimless chatter that passes the time. The colloquial dialogue is pungent and often funny. But more to the point, it constitutes a kind of strip-mining operation all its own, chipping away with passing observations and fleeting reminiscences, until it has revealed the humble souls of the characters.

At the heart of the play is Carla (Dede Lovejoy), a high school dropout who hates her dreary existence and marriage, but will eventually learn that running away with $38 doesn't make things better. Williams tends to insist too heavily on her conviction that somewhere, somehow, there's got to be a better life. She'd be more touching if she were less repetitive. However, that's really the only significant flaw in a script brimming with the promise of plays to come. Williams has surrounded her with real people, poor in cash, but rich in spirit: Marlene (Christia Stinson), who has buried all her frustrations in pregnancy and sweet fictions of motherhood; flashy Wanda (Julie Fishell), who sells the men beer and maybe sex out of her trailer; doltish Cyril (Dennis Ward), always good for a lame-brained practical joke; and crusty old Lorette (Patricia Carroll), a wreck in housecoat and curlers who, when chastised for her cigarette habit, snaps back at one point, "I don't smoke too much. I cough too much."

Under the direction of John David Lutz, the play is given a very solid production by the University of Evansville. The cast--not all students, it would appear--is as accomplished in the heaviness of silence as it is in the heat of argument. Carroll, especially, is a crumbling treasure who uses her salty cracks to keep despair at arm's length. And despair, for once, complies. The production repeats today at 2 and 7:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.