WIN/LOSE/DRAW," the second effort by the fledgling Sanctuary Theater, is a concise, often moving trio of one- act plays about contemporary women.

The three bittersweet confrontations between pairs of women are satisfactorily brought to life by Sanctuary's actors, most of whom are relative neophytes. Playwrights Ara Watson and Mary Gallagher exhibit a strikingly good ear for dialogue; much of the material sounds as authentic as if it had been tape-recorded from real life.

The strongest play is the poignant and funny "Chocolate Cake," a late-night motel room meeting between an unlikely pair -- a shy small-town girl and a vulgar, vital goodtime gal -- who share a weakness for compulsive eating. Like so many trying to salve the despair at the core of their lives, they try vainly to fill the emptiness with food. As the sweet, sad town mouse Anne Marie, Laura Higgins lets her nervous laughter ring sad and true; and as brash Delia, Terry Lang chews her lines with lip-smacking gusto, snapping off a succession of stinging one-liners like a string of firecrackers.

In "Little Miss Fresno," a brief sketch about vicarious ambition at a children's beauty pageant, a nervous mother new to the pageant scene discovers her own competitive edge when she meets a pushy "stage mother" who doesn't bother to mask her aggression.

"Final Placement" maneuvers sensitively through the emotional mine field of a child abuse case. It's an anguished confrontation between a distraught mother and an overworked, over-involved social worker over an abused four-year-old boy who has been removed from his parents by court order. Sanctuary founder Elizabeth Bruce is distressingly convincing as the disheveled, bitter mother who lashes out with violence in her ignorance. Again, Laura Higgins is fine as the social worker, a "professional friend," showing the frustration and barely concealed hostility that have rusted over the foundation of real concern.

The community troupe has made its home in the old sanctuary of Adams Morgan's Calvary United Methodist Church. The productions are unpretentious in the extreme, and the performers must compete with the abundant ambient noise provided by the neighborhood. Director Michael Oliver's sets are crude but suitable, an assortment of beige boxes that are combined and recombined by the actors. The trilogy's effectiveness is hampered slightly by unnecessary padding -- including an amateurish slide show and a graceful but superfluous mime-based "dance narration" -- the purpose of which seems intended to give everybody something to do.

But despite the drawbacks of a limited budget and less than ideal performance space, the company's dedication is clearly evident. And in "Win/Lose/Draw," they succeed far beyond their modest ambitions.

WIN/LOSE/DRAW -- At Sanctuary Theater (1459 Columbia Road NW) through May 11.