Taking a Test Drive

New Lighthouse play a comedic spin through history

Photo by J.P. Antonacci, Norfolk News
Stephen Sparks and Carolyn Hall rehearse a scene from Test Drive, a comedy by Dave Carley.

Norfolk News
By J.P. Antonacci

Put Forrest Gump behind the wheel of a classic car, and you get Earl Hughes.

“We see all the things that happen to him from 1954 to 2004. The interesting thing about it is he sees everything through the eyes of a car,” said director Simon Johnston of Hughes, the hero of Test Drive, a comedy by Dave Carley opening this week at Port Dover’s Lighthouse Festival Theatre.

The play presents 50 years of history as seen from the front seat of the automobiles Hughes, a car salesman from Don Mills, drives around the country. He meets people, falls in love, raises a family and confronts old age as world events unfold around him.

“Every car has a specific meaning, and he relates to the world through the cars,” Johnston said.

“So when he sees a beautiful woman, he describes her like the first time he saw a Studebaker. For him, it’s a big compliment.”

Hughes’ passion for cars takes him on the road to bear witness to Woodstock, the Cold War and the internet age, with hit songs from each era blaring from his car radio and photographs of cars and historical events beamed onto a screen set up on stage.

“The test drive is a metaphor for him testing his life, and various challenges we all relate to,” Johnston said.

“Marriage, his in-laws,his son who becomes a hippie – which he doesn’t like – and his daughter marrying somebody who’s a little bit weird. All of those benchmarks run parallel to the new cars.”

That universality makes this a play for all audiences, but car enthusiasts will appreciate the nostalgic trip to the garages of their youth.

“A lot of our audience will probably remember the cars (from) the first time round,” said Johnston, who admitted a preference for classic British cars over the American autos Hughes favours.

Port Dover crowd favourite Stephen Sparks plays Hughes, surrounded by some 14 supporting characters portrayed by just two actors, Carolyn Hall and Abraham Asto.

“They do this through the magic of theatre – simply by changing a hat, or changing glasses, or physicality,” Johnston said. “In some scenes, they play two people at the same time. It’s very challenging.”

Johnston, Lighthouse’s artistic director from 1987 to 1994, was invited by current lead hand Derek Ritschel to direct the comedy by Carley, a Peterborough-born playwright Johnston has known for decades.

The director hadn’t been to Dover in many years, and said he is enjoying being back on the Lighthouse stage.

“I love the space. There’s so much history here,” he said. “It’s 100 years old, the theatre itself. It still has a tin ceiling and a lot of the original fixtures.”

Johnston would love to see audiences fill the historic theatre to take in a play he said has a broad appeal.

“It’s a comedy, but it has its moments of pathos,” he said.

“We watch a man’s life, and there are peaks and valleys. It’ll be extremely entertaining.”

Test Drive opens June 18 and runs until July 5. For tickets, call the box office at 519-583-1031 or visit lighthousetheatre.com.