Tony Lawton ’89 works alone, but craves an audience. A heralded Philadelphia stage actor, he’s known for searing one-man productions of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — the latter streaming online now through December 27.
Years ago, Lawton taught acting at Notre Dame. More recently, he brought Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C. back to life in beloved campus performances of Sorin: A Notre Dame Story, written by Christina Telesca Gorman ’91.
Since May, Lawton’s stage has been his 15-foot-square Philadelphia kitchen, where he’s made more than 500 pies for new, adoring fans he meets — masked — on his socially distant deliveries.
“Most of the compensation actors get is emotional, the feeling that we’re needed,” he explains. “Baking lets me see people — people who are happy to see me.”
Lawton’s star turn as a pastry chef began abruptly in March, when his five-week production of Shakespeare in Love shuttered two weeks early as the coronavirus pandemic canceled live theater and upended the economy. A year’s worth of roles (and anticipated income) vanished.
Lawton always brought pies to opening night, earning applause backstage for his all-butter crust and dreamy, creamy fillings. Pies unify. Pies soothe pain. Could pies get him working again?
By July, Lawton had stocked his pantry and made peace with Facebook — “I’d been off for years, it brought out the worst in me” — to launch Tony Lawton Pies with a clarion call to consume calories:
PIE SHOP IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS AGAIN, Y’ALL!
’Member that time I was selling solar panels instead? You ever see Glengarry Glen Ross? Death of a Salesman? It was kind of like that — a spiritual abattoir, and I had to get out of there.
SO — PIE!
All pie, all the time. Order to your heart's content, and help me pay my bills, eh?
He offered a tantalizing menu of Apple, Apple Pecan, Cherry, Coconut Cream, Lemon Meringue Peach, Peanut Butter, Pecan, Pumpkin, Strawberry Rhubarb, Sweet Potato and the enticingly named ELVIS:
If you need some real carb and lipid consolation during these times, there is the ELVIS:
Peanut butter cookie and bacon crust. Layer of sliced bananas on bottom. Custard Filling.
Peanut butter-whipped cream topping.
Lawton labored over how to price edible performance art.
“It costs me about five dollars and an hour to make a pie,” he says. “Twenty dollars seems fair,” plus another $5 for delivery by the baker himself driving a 2012 Toyota Prius.
The first orders flowed from devoted theater subscribers eager to keep an artist from starving. Then came the Notre Dame connections. Lawton quickly found himself making 11 pies a day, seven days a week. He loved the money but feared burning out on baking. He’s since imposed pie-life balance.
Baking in bulk requires power shopping. Lucky for Lawton, he lives near a Sam’s Club, where his weekly haul includes:
- 12 pounds of butter
- 10 pounds of sugar
- 10 pounds of flour
- 90 eggs
- 1 pint of vanilla
- Cafeteria quantities of frozen fruit, fresh apples, lemons, pecans, walnuts and spices
Nick Simon ’89 and Lawton met as student performers in Washington Hall and have stayed friends through adulthood on the East Coast. When Simon and his wife, Miriam Hill ’87, heard about Lawton’s latest one-man adventure, they felt compelled to pay it forward with pastry.
“Miriam got the idea to give pies to everybody on our street,” Simon tells me. “The hardest part was seeing all of these pies coming into and out of our house. We only got one.”
In November, I was one of the beneficiaries, experiencing the unexpected elation of encountering Lawton — wearing flour-doused sweatpants — on my porch. The mixed berry beauty he handed me? Devoured in less than 24 hours.
A week later, I texted him to continue the sweet sensation, placing an order of 10 pies: Three for my hard-working staff at the University of Pennsylvania, six for close friends I’ve missed since we’ve been relegated to home confinement, and an Elvis that thoroughly entertained my family.
In spare moments between filling holiday orders, Lawton films monologues from Molly Sweeney, an Irish play about a blind woman pressured into a risky operation to restore her vision. He’s the ophthalmologist.
Kneading dough through the contentious political season, Lawton, who turns 54 on New Year’s Day, conceived a recipe for a documentary play called Trump’s America.
“I want to meet people, interview them, get them to open up and really listen to what they are thinking. I want to understand one half of America and present that to the other half, to see if we can get a dialogue going, meet in the middle.”
When he could bring such an ambitious concept to the stage is anyone’s guess.
“Live theater will come back last — after restaurants, after sporting events,” Lawton surmises. “Our audience is older. We can’t run at less than full capacity. And if you have a show with intermission, everyone has to be able to crowd into small bathrooms.”
Monica Yant Kinney is a former columnist and reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.