A VIVID study of familial friction in a Utah town in the '50s, Julie Jensen's "Stray Dogs" receives a sterling production at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, an intimate and congenial place long monopolized by Stephen Wade's "Banjo Dancing."

Young mother Nyda, a Catholic, is an outsider in a clannish Mormon town, shepherding two young sons alone, waiting for a final showdown with her undependable husband Myers who is off on another extended bender. Myers' brother Wells, a neighboring farmer who's got a thing for Nyda, comes over to offer whiskey and comfort till her husband comes home.

"Stray Dogs" succeeds as a compelling character study -- until Myers finally returns home and begins his bullying rampage. Then Jensen suddenly switches gears and turns the play into a maudlin battle between a no-good snake and a strong, suffering woman. Jensen takes the easy way out by ending it with a shooting, which is shockingly gory but comes as no surprise.

Jensen has an unerring and economical way with the rhythms of rural family life, and knows how pain and disappointments are turned into earthy humor -- "Stray Dogs" is often downright hilarious. Director Jim Nicola catches all the clattering, door-slamming vitality of the kitchen as the heart of the family, and set designer David M. Glenn has created a well-worn version to fit cozily into the Old Vat Room.

Deborah Hedwall's Nyda is wearily beautiful, a feisty, fed-up survivor who nonetheless can still get a laugh out of her no-win situation. Barry Cullison's Wells is an intense, gentle man who resents the overpowering shadow of his wild younger brother. Swapping loaded glances across the kitchen table, Hedwall and Cullison generate erotic heat in the repressed romance between Nyda and Wells. Timothy Carhart plays Myers as a perpetual child who knows he can get away with murder because of his menacing physicality. Strikingly natural performances are given by John Rodin as Reese, the exuberantly malicious younger son, given to macabre barnyard experiments; and by Kevin Joseph as J. Ross, the thoughtful mama's boy.

Jensen's play was chosen from more than 1,200 scripts as the winner of the Foundation of the Dramatists Guild/CBS New Plays Program at Arena Stage, and on the evidence of "Stray Dogs," it will be a pleasure to hear from her again. -- Joe Brown.

STRAY DOGS -- At Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, alternating with "Banjo Dancing" through July 6.