01/26/2012 06:16 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Atom Egoyan returns to theatre with Cruel and Tender

For his latest project, the stars aligned for Atom Egoyan, who debuts his production of Martin Crimp's drama Cruel and Tender in Toronto Thursday.

Thanks to a generous pocket of time between films, the Toronto director got the chance to mount the "brilliant" British playwright's work for the Canadian Stage Company. It gave him the opportunity to return to his theatre roots and, though he has previously collaborated with his wife — actress Arsinée Khanjian — on film, it is the first time the couple has teamed up on a stage production.

"This is a perfect play. When I read it, I just thought 'This is something we can do together and this is an incredible opportunity,'" Egoyan told CBC News.

Cruel and Tender — a taut family drama set against war and genocide — is "a really amazing reinvention" of the Greek tragedy The Women of Trachis by Sophocles, he said.

"It is provocative. It's really engaging. It's emotional. It's dealing with family dynamics, but it's also setting that against something that has a much broader international perspective."

Egoyan started his career as a playwright and recalled that Toronto's strong theatre scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s was one of the key things that drew him to the city. Though best known as the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat and Chloe, he has occasionally found time to dabble in other forms, from the TV movie Gross Misconduct to a production of Samuel Beckett's Eh Joe to the opera Salome (which he will revive with the Canadian Opera Company next season).

The time preparing Cruel and Tender has provided a welcome reminder of the communal nature of theatre — a stark difference from the disjointed, sometimes lonely nature of directing films, he said.

"What you're seeing on the stage is that incredible alchemy that exists between the performer and the audience. I'm there to facilitate it," he said.

"Honestly, it's not as fun, it's just not as pleasurable to shoot a film as it is to create a play."