Ever since that banjo dancer Stephen Wade took up residence in the Old Vat Room more than five years ago, Arena Stage has been obliged to cut back on the business of developing plays. No one would begrudge Wade his long-run success and he's helped pay Arena's bills. But it is still pleasant to report that for the next 2 1/2 weeks, he'll be sharing the space with "Stray Dogs," an often absorbing drama by Julie Jensen.

The play, selected from more than 1,200 entries, is the winner of the Foundation of the Dramatists Guild/CBS New Plays Program at Arena Stage. Four other regional theaters across the country are conducting similar contests under the program. The five winning plays will be viewed next by a panel of American playwrights, who will decide which one will receive an award of $10,000. Money alone, of course, doesn't make a playwright. But it does encourage promising playwrights to stick with a notoriously risky profession.

Jensen certainly has gifts that augur well for her. She writes pungent dialogue and creates flesh-and-blood characters, not the least of whom are two preteen brothers at an especially difficult stage in their development. While I'm not sure that "Stray Dogs" amounts to much more than a particular case history, within its modest limitations it is real and believable.

It takes place on a hot summer day in 1958 in small-town Utah. The setting is the ramshackle kitchen of Nyda (Deborah Hedwall), a beleaguered mother struggling to cope with those two rambunctious youths and an errant husband, who spends more time carousing than he does earning a living. The family is "too poor to be bankrupt." As Nyda explains to one of her sons, "Poor's at the bottom. Broke is above that. Bankrupt's above that."

Nyda has determined to send her husband Myers packing once and for all -- if ever he shows up -- and the play's action consists of her uneasy wait on one hand, and her attempts on the other to get the bedraggled family though another day. Jensen is especially good at capturing the ambivalence of a woman who loves her exasperating children while at the same time she is driven to near distraction by their antics.

At 11, J. Ross is going through his religious phase, which makes him both sweetly pensive and assertively dogmatic. Reese, a year younger, is a hyper-energetic brat who brandishes cap guns and tomahawks, dissects insects and plays loathsome games with his food. (The two are so persuasively acted by Kevin Joseph and John Rodin, respectively, that the performances should probably be filed away under "Kid Brother" for future reference.)

In her battle to survive the daily frustrations, Nyda counts on Wells (Barry Cullison), a soft-spoken farmer and the brother of her wayward husband. This day, Wells drops by with some ears of corn, a pail of milk and the sort of emotional comfort that could get out of hand, if he were not such a decent sort. He is the antithesis of his brother, as becomes apparent when Myers finally bursts on the scene -- a chip on his shoulder and another mad moneymaking scheme in his head.

Up to this point, "Stray Dogs" is almost a classic example of naturalism. Without violating the texture of another ordinary day, Jensen has introduced us effortlessly -- and entertainingly -- to her characters, their problems and some of their history. Once Myers appears, however, matters turn lurid, not to say pathological. While I don't want to spoil the ending for you, it does prove fairly bloody. For me, the melodramatics have the effect of closing up a play that in its earlier stretches, at least, gives every indication that it is opening onto broader horizons.

There's no faulting the production, which has been shrewdly directed by James C. Nicola. The scenes between Nyda and her sons, among the play's best, are refreshingly free of sentimentality and yet they pulsate with the love that underlies frazzled nerves and temper tantrums. Throughout "Stray Dogs," Nicola has seen to it that the unspoken manages to get expressed.

Hedwall's tired beauty is just right for Nyda. You immediately sense the impetuousness she once possessed as a girl and the strength she's had to develop as an adult. The portrait is not without gallantry. Reticence and decency, as Cullison nicely expresses them, are active, not passive, qualities. While Timothy Carhart, the bullying husband, opts for too many psychological tics and nervous jitters, the error is not entirely his. As written, the character is something of a walking time bomb in a play that is most convincing when time is just drifting by.

The title refers to the wild curs that have been pestering the sheep on the nearby farms and, as the drama unfolds, are being hunted down and shot. But it applies to the characters, as well, displaced and edgy in this small Mormon town. It is Jensen's achievement that for much of the play she succeeds in reintegrating her stray people into the human community.

Stray Dogs, by Julie Jensen. Directed by James C. Nicola. Set, David M. Glenn; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Noel Borden. With Deborah Hedwall, Kevin Joseph, John Rodin, Barry Cullison, Timothy Carhart. At Arena Stage's Old Vat Room through July 6. (The production rotates with "Banjo Dancing." Check with theater for exact dates.)