South African playwright Athol Fugard's new play

Coming Home

will start previews Wednesday and launch the Wilma Theater's season a week later. A sequel to 1995's

Valley Song

, it takes up the life of Veronica, who as a girl years before left her grandfather's farm in South Africa's Karoo region to seek fame and fortune as a singer in Cape Town.

Valley Song was written in the early post-apartheid era, at a time when South African "hearts were filled with hope," the 77-year-old Fugard said in a recent phone interview. Veronica represented all those brave expectations.

"We were a fledgling democratic nation," he said, "and I had to acknowledge that euphoria by a symbol."

Coming Home is a response to the disappointments and horrors of the intervening years, and Veronica, who returns to the farm with a young son and a terrible secret, is, again, a symbol.

"Time passed," Fugard said, "and the situation became anything but simple."

He cited the "idiocy" of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president and refused to acknowledge that AIDS was caused by a virus.

"We stayed in darkness, back in the Middle Ages of witch doctors. The minister of health advised eating bananas" to counter the epidemic, and "more people were killed in that decade than died under apartheid."

"Having once invited audiences to have hope for South Africa, I realized now I have to set the record straight," Fugard said. In Valley Song, he played both Veronica's mixed-race grandfather, her Oupa, and a white character called "The Author," who had been drawn back to the farmland of his birth in the semi-desert Karoo. Fugard was born there and now owns a house he tries to visit once a year (from Southern California, where he spends much of his time) in a "return to my beginnings."

"At the end of one's time, one comes home," he said. "You would like to return to where you started, and I returned to the soil where I grew up."

The playwright, who has five stents in his heart, knows "it could happen any day - but I don't think it will." And although this line of talk sounds like "a glorious sunset," it is not. Laughing, he reveals that he has written two more plays since Coming Home.

In December, Have You Seen Us?, which deals with issues of exile and prejudice, will open at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre - where Coming Home premiered over the winter. The Train Driver will premiere in June in Cape Town, with Fugard co-directing with Ross Devenish. He describes it as "a very stark play about the state of South Africa."

Although Fugard has for many years been a distinguished presence onstage as well as behind the scenes, he will not be acting in any of these three productions. He likens the pull of the stage to "being an alcoholic: I still lust longingly for both."

Coming Home is the fifth Fugard play to be produced by the Wilma Theater, which presented Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act in the 1987-88 season, followed with The Road to Mecca, Playland, and My Children! My Africa!

The playwright has fond memories of the Wilma's old Sansom Street theater (now the Adrienne) and is a great admirer of Wilma cofounder Blanka Zizka, who will direct Coming Home.

"Theater owes her so much," he said. "Good theater has to do two things: teach and entertain. That's a tightrope that has to be walked - and Blanka can do that without a net."

Through Nov. 15 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Previews begin Wednesday; opening night is Oct. 21.

Tickets: $36-$55. 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.