The Source Theater's production of "The Glass Menagerie" works like a polished prism, bending the ghostly light of Tennessee Williams' classic into every hot hue of emotion.

The show is a model of stagecraft, gracefully rending hearts as it knocks 'em dead. Director Bart Whiteman and his four-actor cast treat detail with loving care without being mannered or precious. Every effect, from haunting incidental music to a set in perpetual twilight, helps the drama along. Each performance, neatly distilled, is a clear-cut reflection of character.

Steven Dawn's Tom Wingfield flits to and fro like a bee in a jar; Beverly Brigham Bowman's Amanda clasps to people and things like a great taloned bird; Kathryn Kelley's Laura is as skittish as a lame horse and sweetly mad; and T.J. Edwards' gentleman caller is as hard as a sharpie and peacock- vain.

Williams typically binds them up with hope, yearning, rage and regret, and places them in a shabby flat in St. Louis before the Second World War, across a dark alley from a dance hall named Paradise.

For once the Source's low budget and cramped stage work to a show's advantage: They describe the Wingfields' insular world and define their imprisonment. Steve Siegel has come up with a spare and evocative set, everything mock-delicacy and decay. Suspended from the ceiling, the jaunty, grinning portrait of the father who fled looms like the Cheshire Cat.

Dawn, as Tom, is first to appear, and as he outlines the play to come -- the mother, the sister and their quest for the gentleman caller ("the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for") -- he smokes a cigarette. It's a measure of his craft that he always holds his smokes between thumb and forefinger, like a jail inmate, and it's one deft touch in a production sporting many.

There's Bowman as Amanda, crumpling up in a chair as she speaks the line "I'm just bewildered by life"; Kelley as Laura, her eyes perpetually darting, her smile the shape of fear; and Edwards as the swaggering gentleman, tossing a gum wrapper in the air and whirling around to catch it behind him during his climactic t.ete a t.ete with lame Laura.

The best thing about this show, of course, is the play itself -- as much a joy for poetry as for powerful drama. Take Tom, the detached narrator, describing one of his mother's occupations:

"Late that winter and in the early spring -- realizing that extra money would be needed to properly feather the nest and plume the bird -- she began a vigorous campaign on the telephone, roping in subscribers to one of those magazines for matrons called 'The Homemaker's Companion,' the type of journal that features the serialized sublimations of ladies of letters who think in terms of delicate cup-like breasts, slim, tapering waists, rich creamy thighs, eyes like wood-smoke in autumn, fingers that soothe and caress like soft, soft strains of music. Bodies as powerful as Etruscan sculpture."

They just don't write 'em like that anymore. THE GLASS MENAGERIE -- At the Source Theater through September 17.